Beyoncé (Columbia/Parkwood Entertainment)
BEYONCÉ is a beast.
Her fifth album, released by surprise late last week, is a collection that highlights her evolution as a woman and artist. It's her strongest, most cohesive album to date.
What's most appealing about Beyoncé is it shows -- in the sound and method of release -- she isn't conforming to mainstream standards: The songs, while some will find success as singles, play like a unified assembly.
She kicks off the 14-track set with the Sia-penned Pretty Hurts, a mellow R&B number about the sickness behind attempting perfection, featuring lyrics like, "It's the soul that needs surgery." That's followed with the Jay Z-assisted Drunk in Love, a strikingly thumping, sexually charged jam that's irresistible.
And sexuality is a large part of the self-titled album. On the old-school flavoured Blow, one of the album's best tracks, she sings proudly of hitting the sheets with her lover, and on Rocket, co-written with Justin Timberlake, she sings softly: "Punish me, punish me please."
Blue, which includes the voice of her daughter Blue Ivy, closes the album, ending things off with her beautiful tone and pitch. And that's just it -- Beyoncé is pitch perfect. ****1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: BLOW
-- Mesfin Fekadu, The Associated Press
Aftershock (UDR/Motrhead Music)
Earlier this year, when Motrhead's leader Lemmy Kilmister fell ill with heart- and diabetes-related health problems, it looked as if the end was near for the long-serving metal band.
Guess what? The rock god has bounced back and will hit the road in 2014 to promote, Aftershock, Motörhead's 21st studio set, a 14-tracker that definitely hits the win column. There are no surprises, really, and it's not like fans want Motörhead to expand its sound. This version of the trio, the sturdiest of the 11 different lineups since 1975, pounds out the familiar sonic blitzkrieg with relish. Opening track Heartbreaker begs the typical adjectives -- "thundering," "face-melting," you get the idea. Basically, it's Motörhead in full bloom, and illness be damned, Kilmister sounds as furious as he ever did.
There are sideways glances here as well, where the band lays off the throttle and even gets a bit melancholic. Lost Woman Blues and Dust and Glass bring guitarist Philip Campbell's composed chops to the fore, leaving the sonic bombast at bay for at least a few moments of Motör-tenderness.
Who knows how long this band will continue to release the hounds in the studio and on tour, but the old cliché, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," applies in spades in this case. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: Keep Your Powder Dry
-- Jeff Monk
Live at The Cellar Door (Warner)
With the release of Live at The Cellar Door, Neil Young again provides manna for his legions of fans. Culled from a series of six shows between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, 1970, at the titular Washington, D.C., venue, these 13 tracks, like the other albums in the Neil Young Archives Performance Series, provide a small, yet interesting, snapshot of the iconoclastic Young at a particular arc in his artistic curve.
On this solo set, Young uses only piano and guitar to get his Laurel Canyon-bred folk songs across. It's a testament to his abilities these songs work in this super low-wattage style. But who knew in 1970 that when he introduced a song like Only Love Can Break Your Heart as being from his "new album" what the future would hold for the hirsute Canuck, who plays a solo acoustic show at the Centennial Concert Hall Jan. 16?
This album will be fully appreciated by the legion of long-serving Neil Heads, especially when they hear Cinnamon Girl played by Young on piano rather than guitar. The between-song banter is slight and Young sounds just a little bit high, but it adds the compulsory connection to those aromatic times.
LATCD works on many levels, but mostly it's just a great-sounding bootleg that will please fans and friends. ***
DOWNLOAD THIS: Don't Let It Bring You Down
-- Jeff Monk
WINNIPEG saxophonist Neil Watson melds his two main musical influences -- hip-hop and jazz -- on his debut album.
Watson, on alto sax, focuses more jazz on this 10-tune disc, but gives a good nod to hip-hop, the music he grew up listening to, with the help of DJ Kutdown on four tracks and rapper Alfa on two, including a take on Thelonious Monk's signature tune Epistrophy.
The Lion & the Gazelle is the best of Watson's nine compositions, especially for his tremendous performance, coupled with those of pianist Will Bonness, bassist Julian Bradford and drummer Curtis Nowosad on the freewheeling track.
Out of Sight (But Not Out of Mind) slows things down and Watson's ballad playing is evocative. Trumpeter Simon Christie helps conjure a '70s-like vibe along with Bonness on Fender Rhodes on Togo's Bad Day.
Throughout the CD, Watson's playing is vibrant, his compositions engaging and the band is in a groove. The album is being released Dec. 19 at the West End Cultural Centre. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: The Lion & The Gazelle
-- Chris Smith
This week's singles
BEYONCÉ & JAY-Z
Drunk in Love (Columbia)
Her unannounced album blew up the Internet this past week, and while it's still not entirely clear which track is the lead stand-out single (Blow? XO?), this is definitely the one most people are talking about. This stuttering, bass-heavy R&B jam is undeniably sexy, featuring some icy, restrained synths, and increasingly intensifying vocals. Meanwhile, the video seems to give a bit of a nod to Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. ***1/2
Losing Sleep (Universal)
Following up stellar first single Love Me Again (not to mention his guest vocals on Rudimental's amazing Feel the Love), the latest from raspy-voiced British neo-soul singer John Newman is a brilliantly powerful combination of pop, jazz, and breakbeats. Think Amy Winehouse meets Robbie Williams meets Stereo MCs meets Stanton Warriors. Top notch. ****
Trouble Again (Interscope)
Released exclusively through Spotify, this Mantangi bonus track is a dark, schizophrenic ride. Shifting through half a dozen different tones and styles of beats while still remaining coherent in four and a half minutes is no easy feat, but M.I.A. manages to pull it off with flawless creativity. ****
-- reviewed by Steve Adams