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    No. 2

    Lioness: Hidden Treasures

    by Amy Winehouse

    Liner Note Authors: Mitch Winehouse; Janis Winehouse; Mark Ronson; Salaam Remi. Recording information: Amy's House, London (03/2006); Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ (03/2006); Creative Space, Miami, FL (03/2006); Daptone Records' House Of Soul (03/2006); Doghouse Studios, Henley (03/2006); EMI Studios, London (03/2006); Instrument Zoo, Miami, FL (03/2006); La Source Studios, London (03/2006); Platinum Sound, NY (03/2006); Read World, Bath, England (03/2006). Photographer: Bryan Adams. Having always divided opinion with her controversial private life while ultimately possessing one of the greatest voices of her generation, Amy Winehouse's life came to a tragic end in the summer of 2011. Lioness: Hidden Treasures is an album that features previously unreleased material from the late singer, including a duet with rapper Nas on "Like Smoke" and a touching cover of Ruby & the Romantics' 1963 hit single "Our Day Will Come."

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    No. 4

    Creedence Clearwater Revival [Box Set]

    by Creedence Clearwater Revival

    In 2000, Fantasy finally treated the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog with the respect it deserved, remastering the entire catalog and issuing them in lavish editions with rich liner notes and slipcases. So, when they decided to release a "complete recorded works" box set a year later, the results weren't quite as revelatory as they may have been, since even if this was remastered again, it's hard for most listeners to notice the difference between this and the previous material, and all the liner notes -- from such luminaries as Dave Marsh, Ben Fong-Torres, Ed Ward, Stanley Booth, and Robert Christgau -- are printed as the liners here, meaning that for the hardcore who bought the whole catalog a year before, this is almost anti-climatic. That is the operative word here, since there is one thing that makes this set essential for the fanatics, even if they bought the remasters, and that's the first disc, which contains all known pre-CCR recordings by the Golliwogs and Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets. These aren't really stunning recordings; they're very much within the style and sound of the time, borrowing from Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Beach Boys, all twisted to something much sweeter than what CCR came to be known for. This may not be as musically satisfying as the other five discs -- which, after all, comprise perhaps the greatest body of work by an American rock band -- but it's necessary for any true fan, since this stuff is not only rare, but there's a lot of stuff that hasn't even been bootlegged, particularly on the Golliwogs' material on the first disc. But this box really kicks into full gear on the second disc, with the rare single "Call It Pretending" -- a dynamite slice of Stax-styled R&B rock -- before heading into that remarkable set of albums, running through each album in order, with only a promotional single to break up the flow of the albums (each record is presented uninterrupted except for Pendulum, which is split between two discs: nine cuts on one disc, two on another), before it winds up with the two live albums (including cuts that didn't make it on The Concert). Again, this extra material isn't essential for anyone but collectors (with the exception of "Call It Pretending"), but the music is so good that anybody looking to get everything the great American rock & roll band recorded in one fell swoop would be encouraged to take this route. After all, after you memorize the proper albums, the live cuts and pre-CCR material will be necessary. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 5

    Drones

    by MUSE

    Muse, and Matt Bellamy in particular, make no bones about Drones: their seventh album is political through and through, a bold statement concerning the dehumanization of modern warfare. As Muse is not a subtle band -- any suspicion they were is erased by the artwork depicting a hand controlling the joystick of an office drone controlling a joystick directing drones -- it's hard to avoid their conclusion that war is bad, but this inclination to write everything in bold, italicized capital letters is an asset when it comes to music, particularly here where they've teamed with legendary hard rock producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange. Always a sucker for oversized guitar riffs and bigger drums, Lange also allows the trio to indulge in a bit of Floydian fantasies -- the made-to-order dialogue of "Drill Sergeant" is straight out of The Wall -- but he spends much of Drone sharpening Muse's synthesis of every arena rock idea ever essayed. Echoes of other bands can certainly be heard -- an early Radiohead influence still lingers, due largely to Bellamy's vocal phrasing, but that can soften into a glimmer reminiscent of Coldplay, while elsewhere they aim for the majesty of U2 and the showboating velocity of Van Halen ("Hurricane" naturally opens with an erupting hurricane of finger-tapping pyrotechnics), but this absurdly overstuffed synthesis is unmistakably Muse's own, so thunderous it drowns out any good intentions the band may have had. [Drones was also released in a CD/DVD set.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 7

    Stages

    by Josh Groban

    Josh Groban always skirted the edges of middlebrow pop so it's a certain relief to hear the classical singer go all in on 2015's Stages, a tribute to the great songs of the Great White Way. He throws a few movie tunes in for good measure, including the opening "Pure Imagination" from Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and "Over the Rainbow," but the concentration is on A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, The Fantasticks, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George -- lots of Sondheim, lots of musicals from after the peak of '60s crossover. Nevertheless, in its handsome deliberation, Stages does feel like a throwback to '60s LPs comprised of tunes everybody knows, sung by singers everybody knows. Groban in some ways benefits from a less operatic setting, as it naturally scales back his soaring excess, and the record is also nicely modulated -- a mellow, attractive journey to the middle of the road, a place that seems to suit Groban just fine. [A Deluxe version added two bonus tracks.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 10

    Reflektor

    by Arcade Fire

    After stunning the mainstream pop machine into a state of huffy, new school e-disbelief by beating out Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry for the 2011 Album of the year Grammy, Arcade Fire seemed poised for a U2-style international coup, but the Suburbs, despite its stadium-ready sonic grandiosity, was far too homespun and idiosyncratic to infect the masses in the same way as the Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Reflektor, the Montreal collective's much anticipated fourth long-player and first double-album, moves the group even further from pop culture sanctification with a seismic yet impenetrable 13-track set (at 75 minutes it’s one minute over standard single disc capacity) that guts the building but leaves the roof intact. Going big was never going to be a problem, especially for a band so well-versed in the art of anthem husbandry, and they're still capable of shaking the rafters, as evidenced by the cool and circuitous, Roxy Music-forged, David Bowie-assisted title cut, the lush, Regine Chassagne-led “It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” and the impossibly dense and meaty “We Exist,” but what ultimately keeps Reflektor from sticking the landing is bloat. The stylistic shifts, courtesy of LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, aren’t nearly as jarring as the turgid and Tiki-colored, almost seven-minute “Here Comes the Night Time,” the six minutes of rewinding tape that serve as the coda for the otherwise lovely “Supersymmetry,” or the unnecessarily drawn-out fountain of white noise that should seamlessly connect the Gary Glittery “Joan of Arc” with the Flaming Lips-ian “Here Comes the Night Time, Pt. 2,” but doesn’t because the songs are on separate discs. Flush with artistic capital, they went on a bender, and in the process lost some of the warmth, jubilation, and capacity for empathy that made their first three efforts so inclusive. Nevertheless, Reflektor is as fascinating as it is frustrating, an oddly compelling miasma of big pop moments and empty sonic vistas that offers up a (full-size) snapshot of a band at its commerical peak, trying to establish eye contact from atop a mountain. ~ James Christopher Monger

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    No. 11

    Songs of Innocence

    by U2

    Many U2 albums experience a difficult birth, but their 13th studio record underwent a particularly extended labor. Gestating for years, possibly started immediately after 2009's No Line on the Horizon and ushered into existence by many midwives, Songs of Innocence appeared suddenly in September 2014, nearly nine months after "Invisible," the presumptive lead single for the record, flopped. "Invisible" is nowhere to be found on Songs of Innocence, yet its vaguely electronic thrum did indeed turn out to be a taste of where U2 were headed after those endless sessions wound up shepherded by Danger Mouse. Songs of Innocence -- its title taken from William Blake, although many music nerds may first think of David Axelrod -- does indeed incorporate electronic elements in a way no U2 album since Pop has, weaving samples, loops, and other flourishes within music that otherwise adheres to the self-conscious classicism that has been the band's stock in trade since Y2K. Which is another way of saying that where the U2 of the '90s looked forward, the 2014 U2 are looking back, aware of a legacy that includes decades of arena-filling anthems, the deliberate reinvention of Achtung Baby, and the initial inspiration from the great spark of punk rock. The latter also provides the thematic fuel on Songs of Innocence, a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age story from Bono that begins with the big bang of "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)." This opening fanfare doesn't sound a thing like the Ramones, nor does "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" sound like its reported inspiration, the Clash: they, like everything else here, sound like U2, albeit a U2 who are beginning to carry the weight of their years somewhat uneasily. Majesty doesn't come easily to them anymore, so they've replaced surging melodrama with a brittle, insistent clamor that's intended to dazzle. It's busy enough to be bracing yet it's also wearying, exuding a faint air of desperation that dampens the emotional pull of such lovely moments as "Song for Someone" and "The Troubles" (the latter featuring vocals from Lykke Li) while merely providing clatter elsewhere. Often, there's a nagging sense U2 could've pushed themselves a little harder sonically -- "Raised by Wolves" benefits from the coiled paranoia created by its frenetically circling vocals and guitars -- but that would've required risk, which they've been avoiding since Pop's garbled rollout. Instead, Songs of Innocence showcases how U2 desire to have things both ways. They camouflage their nostalgia in the sound of modernity, they play gigantic music about intimacy, they want to expand their horizons without leaving home. They want to be everything to everyone and, in attempting to do so, they've wound up with a record that appeals to a narrow audience: fellow travelers who either thrill at the spectacle or dig for the subtleties buried underneath the digital din. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 12

    Good Night & Good Luck - O.S.T.

    by Dianne Reeves

    Personnel include: Dianne Reeves (vocoder); Matt Catingub (alto saxophone, tenor saxophone); Peter Martin (piano); Jeff Hamilton (drums); Alex Acuna, Robert Hurst. Recording information: CBS Studio Center Stage, Studio City, CA. The musical accompaniment to George Clooney's biopic of journalist Ed Murrow, GOODNIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, is crammed with contemporary jazz versions of 1940s and '50s favorites like "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and Dinah Washington's novelty hit "TV Is the Thing This Year" (minus the original's slightly risqu‚ verses). Reeves, together with a combo that includes saxophonist Matt Catingub and pianist Peter Martin, conjures an authentic cigarette-and-Martini soaked atmosphere on an exceptional soundtrack that's also a fine album in its own right.

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    No. 14

    Before This World

    by James Taylor

    James Taylor never sets his guitar down -- he spends a good portion of every year satisfying faithful audiences -- but he did rest his pen, opting to sit out the 13 years following the release of 2002's October Road. He kept busy with covers albums and Christmas records, but Before This World finds Taylor returning to writing, a habit he abandoned about a decade prior. Often, Before This World contains echoes of the first decade of the new millennium -- there is a passing reference to 9/11 in a song about Afghanistan and a love letter to the Boston Red Sox's 2004 World Series win -- but Taylor wrote these all in a batch, then recorded them at home with his touring band. Such quick progress gives the record a cozy, unified feeling but, unlike some latter-day JT records, it's not too comfortable. Taylor is randy enough to sing about some "first-class poontang" on the nicely grooving "Stretch of the Highway," a song more notable for a mellow vamp worthy of Steely Dan, the first suggestion there's a bit more variety here than on a typical Taylor platter. He'll ease into his trademark laid-back pop, opening the proceedings with "Today Today Today" and brightening up the midsection with the happy "Watchin' Over Me," but as the record comes toward its conclusion, he takes detours into traditional English folk on "Before This World/Jolly Springtime" and "Wild Mountain Thyme," while etching out a cinematic protest song in "Far Afghanistan." When a record runs only ten tracks and 41 minutes, these departures amount to nearly half the record and turn Before This World into something unexpected: a record as relaxed as the average James Taylor album but one that's also riskier and richer, the right album for him to make at this date. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 15

    Country, God or the Girl

    by K'NAAN

    "See, my blood's on fire, I can't help but survive" declares K'NAAN on "The Seed," the kinetic opener to this Canadian singer's 2012 effort, Country, God or the Girl, another grand step down the Wyclef and U2 road where you'll find sincerity, grandness, poignancy, political anthems, and big productions, as in could-fill-a-canyon big. For this modern Marley-like man who crossed over with the global hit "Wavin' Flag," this is nothing new, but that all-encompassing title references how the personal and intimate have returned to his music here, as light melodies and reflections of growing old fill the precious and proud "Gold in Timbuktu," while "Bulletproof Pride," with special guest Bono, is universal truths and touching whimsy on a "You Can Call Me Al" level, kicking off with "I could have been a doctor, were it not for a degree" and building into a horn-filled jubilee that shakes with mirth. Rappin' what's happenin' as "Waiting Is a Drug" bounces like A Tribe Called Quest, K'NAAN peppers his harrowing story of growing up a Somalian Civil War refugee ("life is a cage" when your surrounded by "cold blades") with crisp, cool punch lines ("Shout out to anyone named 'Mohammed'/'Cause, no lie, I know about a hundred"). If "Is Anybody Out There?" feels just like B.o.B's "Airplanes" with a different rapper (K'NAAN) and a different grand hook deliverer (Nelly Furtado), it's still genuine and moving enough to overcome that déjà vu. Actually, the weird and wonderful whirlwind of funk, hip-hop, rock, and Nas called "Nothing to Lose" is the only thing that feels entirely new because Sting, will.i.am, Damian Marley, and others have done this multiculti, well-funded extravaganza thing before. Still, K'NAAN's a rock-solid songwriter with a charismatic delivery that rains down sparks of cool guy and clever, so call this familiar but rewarding one "Gracedland" or just "Highly Recommended." [A Deluxe Edition contained four bonus tracks.] ~ David Jeffries

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    No. 19

    Ultimate Sinatra

    by Frank Sinatra

    Ultimate Sinatra is a career-spanning collection that is unique in offering prime cuts from each of Frank Sinatra's major-label periods. Beginning with his early work for Columbia, his artistically rich mid-period with Capitol, and his later years with Reprise, this set offers signature tracks like "I've Got the World on a String," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," "Theme from New York, New York," and many more. Available in an expansive four-disc box set, a two-volume digital download, or a single volume of just the essential tracks, Ultimate Sinatra is a great place to start understanding Old Blue Eyes' musical legacy. ~ Timothy Monger

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    No. 20

    How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

    by Florence + the Machine

    The much-anticipated third studio long-player from Florence Welch and her mechanically inclined companions, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful arrives after a period of recalibration for the spirited English songtress. Arriving three-and-a-half years after 2011's well-received Ceremonials, the 11-track set, the first Florence + the Machine album to be produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay), eschews some of the bombast and water- and death-fixated metaphors of Lungs and Ceremonials in favor of a more restrained sonic scope and an honest reckoning with the dark follies of your late twenties. This change is most notable on the workmanlike opener "Ship to Wreck," a shimmering, open road-ready folk-rock rumination on the ambiguity/inevitability of post-fame self-destruction that, unlike prior first cuts like "Dog Days Are Over" and "Only If for a Night," feels firmly rooted in the now. Whether it be simple maturity or Dravs' calculated production style, there's no denying that an effort has been made to dial back a bit on some of the pageantry of Welch's earlier works, and for the most part, her penchant for pairing mystic Bronte-esque pondering with similarly windswept pagan/gothic gospel rock is left bubbling beneath the surface. This attempt to reign in Welch's more histrionic tendencies yields mixed results, with some songs finding the sweet spot between bluster and nuance and others (most of them in the album's sleepy latter half) disappearing altogether. Of the former, the bluesy (and ballsy) "What a Man," the propulsive and purposeful "Delilah," and the gorgeous title track impress the most. Instead of building to a fevered crescendo, as is the Flo-Machine way, the latter cut, a transcendent, slow-burning, chamber pop gem, dissolves into a simple and elegant, yet still goose-bump-inducing round of horns, and is breathtaking without knocking the wind out of you. Whether How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful ends up being a transitional album remains to be seen, as there is enough of each side of Welch (the pastoral and the feral) represented to tip the scale either way. That said, her Brit-pop soul treacle is still miles better than some of her contemporaries' top-tier offerings, and when the album connects it moves right in and starts to redecorate, but when it falters, it's akin to a chatty party guest failing to realize that everyone else has gone home. [How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was also released with two bonus tracks.] ~ James Christopher Monger

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    No. 21

    Physical Graffiti

    by Led Zeppelin

    Led Zeppelin returned from a nearly two-year hiatus in 1975 with the double album Physical Graffiti, their most sprawling and ambitious work. Where Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy integrated their influences on each song, the majority of the songs on Physical Graffiti are individual stylistic workouts. The highlights are when Zeppelin incorporate influences together and stretch out into new stylistic territory, most notably on the tense, Eastern-influenced "Kashmir." "Trampled Underfoot," with John Paul Jones' galloping keyboard, is their best funk-metal workout, while "Houses of the Holy" is their best attempt at pop, while "Down by the Seaside" is the closest they've come to country. Even the heavier blues -- the 11-minute "In My Time of Dying," the tightly wound "Custard Pie," and the monstrous epic "The Rover" -- are louder, more extended and textured than their previous work. Also, all of the heavy songs are on the first record, leaving the rest of the album to explore more adventurous territory, whether via acoustic tracks or grandiose but quiet epics like the affecting "Ten Years Gone." The second half of Physical Graffiti feels like Zeppelin are cleaning the vaults out, issuing every little scrap of music they set to tape in the preceding few years. That means that the album is filled with songs that aren't quite filler, but they don't quite match the peaks of the album, either. Still, even these songs have their merits -- "Sick Again" is the meanest, most decadent rocker they ever recorded and the folky acoustic rock & roll of "Boogie with Stu" and "Black Country Woman" may be tossed off, but they have a relaxed, offhand charm that Zeppelin never matched. It takes a while to sort out all of the music on the album, but Physical Graffiti captures the whole experience of Led Zeppelin at the top of their game better than any of their other albums. [Led Zeppelin launched a massive, Jimmy Page-supervised reissue campaign in 2014, where each of their studio albums was remastered and then expanded with a bonus disc of alternate versions (in the case of the super deluxe editions, they were also supplemented by vinyl pressings, download codes for high-resolution digital audio files, and massive hardcover books). All previous expansions featured alternate versions of nearly every song that showed up on the finished album but Physical Graffiti, the first in the series to appear on its lonesome (and the first to show up in 2015), has a mere seven songs on its bonus disc -- less than half of the sprawling double album. Fortunately, most of these seven songs offer something different from the released versions. The "rough orchestra mix" of "Driving Through Kashmir" is nearly identical to "Kashmir" and "Boogie with Stu" has minutely different solos but "Brandy & Coke," which is a rough mix of "Trampled Under Foot," is leaner and funkier, emphasizing John Paul Jones' jumping clavinet. A rough mix of "In My Time of Dying" is drier and boasts different guitar solos, "Sick Again" is stripped of Robert Plant's vocals and sounds appropriately greasy, and "Houses of the Holy" is larded up with perhaps too many vocal overdubs, which leaves the reissue's real revelation as "Everybody Makes It Through," a very rough and fascinating early version of "In the Light" that's heavy on keyboards and finds Plant still sorting through his vocal. Like most of the Zeppelin reissues, the alternate versions reaffirm that Page made the right decisions the first time around, but these seven versions all make for worthy listening in their own right.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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    No. 22

    Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Led Zeppelin

    by Rockabye Baby!

    Each release in the Rockabye Baby! series takes the best-known songs of a particular artist and places them in a lullaby processor that involves chimes, bells, and vibraphones -- renditions that are slightly more involved than the music that comes out of the average baby mobile. Whether the original versions are heavy and aggressive or light and subdued, these lullaby versions are uniformly appropriate for their purpose. And, in some cases, they even happen to tease out an unlikely amount of melodicism not apparent in the originals. The Led Zeppelin volume features versions of "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Going to California," "Dazed and Confused," "Kashmir," "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," and "Thank You." ~ Andy Kellman

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    No. 23

    Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Guns N Roses

    by Rockabye Baby!

    Tributee: Guns N' Roses. Arranger: Dennis Caplinger.

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