System of a Down, "Hypnotize"
The four guys of System of a Down are known primarily for their incendiary style of heavy art-rock and off-the-wall lyrics, yet this year has already seen one of their uniquely bizarre albums, "Mesmerize," debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, which points to perhaps the oddest thing about the group: their incredible success. As the New York Times puts it in its review of "Hypnotize," "Once again, System of a Down raises the issue of its own top-to-bottom weirdness." But the Times is in love, calling the album "the band's best album so far: the gravest, the wildest, the most complicated." "Hypnotize" is indeed composed of strikingly disparate parts. There are the sounds: "Hell immediately runneth over in [singer/guitarist Daron] Malakian's scoured-staccato guitars and [drummer John] Dolmayan's furious hammering," writes Rolling Stone (three and a half stars out for five), adding that it's "how Metallica would sound channeling the Minutemen." Yet for an album mimicking the noise of war, the lyrics, when decipherable, get quite political: "The mood is rage and frustration, not the pleading debate of despairing peaceniks," says USA Today (three out of four stars), "as System proposes crushing and consuming 'pathetic flag-waving ignorant geeks.'" All the critics seem to agree that the album could have been slapped together with "Mesmerize" as a double release, and, even then, edited down a bit. "No one needs another seventy-nine-minute CD with thirty-nine minutes of filler," says Rolling Stone. That said, writes Billboard, "there are still some great songs on 'Hypnotize,' including the plaintive 'Lonely Day,' SOAD's most emotionally straightforward tune to date. The band can still dazzle with its odd blend of thrash riffs and catchy choruses ('Tentative'), and 'Vicinity of Obscenity' is one of the most twisted, perverse and silly songs it has written." Still, for all the frustrating lyrics and power-mad tempos, the album is primed for big sales. As the Guardian (four stars out of five) chimes in: "The fact that this angry, avant-garde record, like its predecessor, will probably top the U.S. charts is simply remarkable."
Juelz Santana, "What the Game's Been Missing!"
Juelz Santana hasn't quite grown to significant enough cultural stature that critics can talk about him without feeling the need to mention his mentor, rapper Cam'ron. Like 50 Cent always being tied to Eminem before he got big, Santana is still just Cam'ron's brightest pupil, but with his new album, "What the Game's Been Missing!," he might be about to change all that. As expected, the New York Times starts out talking about Cam'ron, but goes on to say that "his most exciting protigi, Juelz Santana, is so utterly (and accurately) convinced of his own allure that he can scarcely be bothered to rap. If you think that sounds like faint praise, then you should hear 'What the Game's Been Missing!,' his second CD. It isn't exactly consistent (there are a few undercooked choruses and overcooked verses), but it is consistently entertaining." His songs "There It Go (The Whistle Song)" and "Mic Check" are already getting steady play on the radio, but as USA Today (three stars out of four) hastens to point out, "His sometimes off-kilter deliveries and storytelling skills ensure that he'll keep you interested beyond the hits. He never falls into a rut, switching easily from songs like the aggressive 'Kill 'Em with Cam' and the pensive 'This Is Me' while sprinkling in tales of treachery ('Lil' Guy Fresh') and loss ('Gone')." Still, as the Times writes, the lyrical obsessions evident on Santana's first album are back: "He loves rhyming words and even phrases with themselves, as if daring listeners to complain. Sometimes it's all a lark. (As when he tells a woman, 'I'll be your check-up guy/ Check up low, check up high/ Check out, bye.') And sometimes, the echoing words add up to dense and vivid stanzas: 'I speak from the heart of the hood/ From the boarded-up apartments with wood/ From the cracked-down crackhouse/ To the burnt-up black house/ To the fiends inside with that burnt-up glass out.'" Even when criticizing the record, Rolling Stone (three and a half stars out of five) admits to being charmed but the blitz of energy on the album: "While overlong at twenty-one tracks -- almost all of them about hustlin', grindin' and, well, hustlin' -- Santana keeps the energy up with a gruff delivery, zany flow and weird observations ('I don't know a lot about the Internet/ I just know how much I'm into sex')."
It hardly comes as a surprise that Billboard describes "Amarantine," the first album in five years for the Irish reigning queen of the mainstream new-age, as full of "uplifting melodies, classical motifs and trance-like chants." This, Enya's sixth record, doesn't take any big chances, and the N.Y. Post writes that it "will offend none of her fans." But that's not to say there are no changes whatsoever. "Rather than ancient Gaelic or Latin, which she has recorded in," the Post goes on, "this time there are actually three songs sung in a made-up tongue that the Enya camp calls Loxian." In fact, Enya says it was her work on the "Lord of the Rings" soundtrack that inspired her to make up a tongue, though she also croons in (fluent) Japanese on the critic favorite "Sumiregusa." Mostly, though, it's the same old Enya, the one who, as USA Today says only half jokingly, writes "the kind of soothing vocals, lush harmonies and New Age-y orchestrations that accommodate everything from deep contemplation to intrusive dental surgery." Or as the Post says: "There's no striking single like 'Orinoco Flow,' but this album is a fine mood-setter for wine served at sunset."
-- Scott Lamb