Sonic Youth, "Rather Ripped"
As the new album from one of the most influential bands of the last quarter century, "Rather Ripped" comes burdened with the kind of baggage most artists would kill for: Will it do justice to a legendary body of work or is it evidence of irrelevancy? Judging from the Guardian (rating: 4 stars), the band has done itself proud: "'Rather Ripped' has the lightness of touch and adventure you'd normally get from a band on their debut, not veteran explorers making their 21st album."
Part of the favorable reaction may have something to do with the band's re-embrace of songcraft after a series of sprawling, ruminative albums. Stylus magazine (rating: A-) finds "Rather Ripped" catchy enough to stand out as Sonic Youth's "radio rock record," with the band flexing "muscles most of us thought atrophied in them long ago." Pitchfork (rating: 7.5) also digs the hooks, but reminds us that this is Sonic Youth we're talking about, as the band manages "to sneak in all sorts of noisy accents, oddball tunings, and crescendo transitions into their so-called pop record."
Amid all the praise, there are some muted voices of dissent, particularly from those who feel that in focusing on songwriting Sonic Youth has moved away from what it does best. Tinymixtapes (rating: 3/5) suggests that "SY have focused inward toward the songs. It turns out, though, that this isn't their greatest strength. 'Rather Ripped' comes off as a collection of good-and-great songs, but it just isn't up there with their best." Whether or not Sonic Youth is better served by guitar sprawl than songwriting is arguable, but it's hard to look past the words of the Village Voice, which warns that to "ignore" the album is to risk "your spiritual detriment."
Busta Rhymes, "The Big Bang"
New York rap icon Busta Rhymes got himself into some hot water recently when he disappeared after one of his bodyguards was shot and killed on the set of a music video. That sobering incident may have caused the normally playful Rhymes to harden his tone on "The Big Bang," an album the New York Times writes is "full of earnest songs about his [Rhymes'] tuff childhood and the state of hip-hop." There's just one problem, continues the Times: "It's hard to imagine a major rapper less well suited for this kind of self-conscious bid for greatness."
The notion that Rhymes has placed himself in the wrong milieu is a common critical response to "The Big Bang." Rolling Stone pulls no punches, calling the album "as hollow as a CGI-fueled Hollywood blockbuster" and Rhymes himself "more moronically misogynous and yayo-crazed than ever."
While not all the reviews are quite as harsh as Rolling Stone's, praise for "The Big Bang" is faint. On the noted hip-hop blog byroncrawford.com, the reviewer writes that the album is "worth copping" but only after mentioning that he's "still reeling from the fact that it's not as sh*t as I expected." The review on hiphopsite.com (rating: 3.5/5) is similarly hedged, pointing out that Rhymes isn't "really doing anything here that we haven't heard him do before except providing a little bit more consistency than usual."
The Futureheads, "News and Tributes"
England's the Futureheads caused a stir a few years back -- alongside similarly minded bands like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party -- with their snappy evocation of early '80s new wave pop. But the public has since moved on. The verdict is mixed on whether "News and Tributes" -- the band's sophomore album -- adequately reflects the change in climate.
For Blender, "News and Tributes" offers "more of the same ... but less" -- with the critic lamenting an increased sense of "maturity" coming from a band that had reveled in frivolous pop. Playlouder (rating: 3.5/5) agrees with that sentiment, writing that despite the band's growth, "The new beast just isn't as feisty as the one-trick pony of old."
There are a large handful of critics that respond more favorably to the band's attitudinal adjustment, with the ever-influential NME (rating: 8/10) chief among them: "'News and Tributes' is not just better than their first album, it's a fabulous record from a band with an exciting forward catalogue ahead of them." Musicohm.com (rating: 4 stars) even offers a direct rebuttal to Blender's critique, arguing that the band managed to "do their maturing without losing their sheer likability." The most evenhanded response comes courtesy of the Cokemachineglow (rating: 78 percent) Web site, which gives "News and Tributes" this assessment: "Given time, the record gets under your skin in slow and somewhat surprising ways, eventually coming off sounding like a very good transitional album by a group with a whole lot more staying power than most would have credited them with two years ago."
-- David Marchese