Imagine Dragons, DJ Khaled, 311, Prince and more album reviews

PHOTO: Prince performs, June 14, 2015, in Washington.PlayKarrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
WATCH Prince: In a minute

This week, Imagine Dragons return with their third album, DJ Khaled releases a double-length, star-studded affair, the members of 311 prove they still have incredible momentum on their twelfth album and Vince Staples drops rhymes over a very experimental backdrop. In addition, it is a really big week for archival releases with deluxe reissues from both Radiohead and Prince along with a “best of” collection from Big Star.

Imagine Dragons’ “Evolve”

**1/2

Imagine Dragons showed a bit of promise on their debut, “Night Visions.” Singles like “Radioactive” and “It’s Time,” although anchored in a forced, anthemic formula, were decent examples of what they do best. “Evolve” is not as dire a record as 2015’s “Smoke + Mirrors,” which found the band working in territory that made latter-day Coldplay seem inventive by comparison. No, here the band is at least taking chances, even if the nodding stabs at hip-hop and R&B-influence heard on “Whatever It Takes” seem ill-fitting. “Believer” on the other hand sounds like it might fit better in their catalogue, even if Dan Reynolds’ vocals are still working with same kind of ominous energy heard on “Radioactive,” seemingly almost repeating himself.

The band still feels a little faceless and aimless. “Walking the Wire,” works but it sounds like it is their attempt at writing a Taylor Swift song. Similarly, as Reynolds shouts “Eh Eh Eh!” on “Rise Up,” it sounds like he is trying to be a male counterpart to Rihanna, before he bursts into an awkward, bellowing chorus.

While “Evolve” has its moments, three albums in, Imagine Dragons are still looking for their unique sound. Maybe pressures from their label for pop hits is causing them to drift into banal formulas, peppered with modern pop clichés. With all their attempts to adapt to the narrow standards, it is sad to realize that this is what passes for “alternative rock” in today’s landscape.

“I’ll Make It Up to You” has its moments, even if its insistent kick-drum is a bit cheesy. It has an 80s-infused, built-in sense of schmaltz. “Yesterday” on the other hand sounds like it is mastered WAY too loudly, as its clunky stomp pounds in your ear. Meanwhile, “Mouth of the River” has some pretty decent moments, fusing a bit of a rocking drive with some pseudo-gospel energy.

“Thunder” has a profoundly annoying sing-song-y energy while “Start Over” sounds like an oddly Tropical slice of eighties R&B that sort of works. Closer “Dancing in the Dark” is an airy bit of chilled electro-pop.

Even though there are a few successful moments here, after three albums, I’m still hard-pressed to figure out what makes the music of Imagine Dragons special. What do they bring to the table? They are capable in places but still trying to find their way with admittedly radically uneven results.

Focus Tracks:

“Walking the Wire” My Taylor Swift comparison stands but this is still the best song on the record with a pretty effective pop appeal.

“Believer” I can hear why this is a rising single. It’s predictable but it has some dark edges that keep it interesting. It also gets some bonus points for its beautifully colorful music video which features Dolph Lundgren.

“Mouth of the River” This sounds like formulaic pop-rock but at the same time, it has a really appealing fuzziness during the verses, paired with a constantly moving backbeat.

PHOTO: Imagine Dragons - Evolve KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records
Imagine Dragons - Evolve

DJ Khaled’s “Grateful”

**1/2

To a certain degree, at this point when you hear a DJ Khaled record, you know what you are going to get. Khaled delivers populist party-jams flooded with guests and “Grateful” is a double-length album packed with almost 90 minutes of music. Amazingly, the results are shockingly repetitive. Khaled can keep a groove going but there is something incredibly unimaginative about his approach. The Rihanna and Bryson Tiller-featuring “Wild Thoughts,” merely finds Rihanna and Tiller singing of the backing track of Santana’s “Maria Maria” while Khaled inserts a yell every now and then. Meanwhile “I’m the One” has Khaled joined by Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne on a syrupy and saccharine, quite forgettable pop song. This song may be doing alright on the charts, but will people be still pumping it in a decade or two? Probably not. There’s very little there.

Even Beyoncé and Jay-Z sound a bit bored on the unimpressive “Shining,” which doesn’t adequately kick into high-gear. I’m not sure what is going on with the Migos-assisted “Major Bag Alert,” but it is definitely odd.

On A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime,” Q-Tip once said, “Rap is not pop/If you call it that then stop.” Khaled is someone who has dragged hip-hop from its essence into the pop world. You’d expect many rappers to dislike his approach to the genre since it is so flagrantly commercial, but Khaled is still able to get a lot of classic rappers on his records. Amid the huge, glaring bits of pop flash are glimpses of hope with Fat Joe and Raekwon doing some nice work on “Billy Ocean.” Pusha T and Jadakiss both do similarly decent work on “Good Man.” Really there are two sides of Khaled at war with each other. He wants hip-hop cred, but he also wants to bring the party to pop radio. That’s not an easy balance, and with his tiresome repetition of his name, “We the Best Music!!!” and “Another One,” Khaled reveals himself to be someone anchored firmly in formulas. Like 2016’s “Major Key,” this album finds that Khaled does his best work with guests rooted in real hip-hop who are not a product of pop’s bastardized spin on the genre.

Rapper Belly (who needs a new name so he isn’t confused with the celebrated alt-rock band) does decently on his “Interlude.” Khaled would be better served if he focused more on hip-hop grooves and didn’t aim for pop hits. Without the transparent posturing and the canned “toasting,” Khaled might drop an interesting record. Of course, “Iced on My Arms,” shows that his focus is anchored on tracks about the good life, with songs that extol the benefits of decadence. The forefathers of hip-hop, which was a genre born out of political unrest and frustration would probably not approve for the most part.

It’s kind of sweet that Khaled gives a shout out to his “Executive Producer,” baby son, Asahd, who supposedly helped pick the tracks and “Grateful” is merely a passable effort if you are looking for a record that will make you dance, but in these difficult times, if you are looking for something with more of a backbone, you should obviously look elsewhere. As is, DJ Khaled still too often still sounds like he’s trying to be the “hip-hop” answer to an EDM festival DJ.

“Grateful” is a spotty, uneven effort with some clear high-points and some undeniable clunkers.

Focus Tracks:

“Nobody” (Featuring Alicia Keys and Nikki Minaj) Pairing Alicia Keys and Nikki Minaj is a surprising move. This song has some real, gospel-fueled momentum offering up some rather stunning results.

“Billy Ocean” (Featuring Fat Joe and Raekwon) If only more of the album had this kind of energy. Both Fat Joe and Raekwon drop some fitting rhymes about hustling and surviving and looking for money. With success comes even more drive and now they are looking to be billionaires. Again, it is materialistic but the rhymes are tight and the beat is nice.

“It’s Secured” (Featuring Nas and Travis Scott) Travis Scott’s vocoder-assisted vocals almost sink this track but Nas again brings fire to a track, making it a winner in spite of its shortcomings.

PHOTO: DJ Khaled - Grateful [Explicit] Epic/We The Best
DJ Khaled - Grateful [Explicit]

311’s “Mosaic”

****1/2

“Mosaic” is a surprisingly potent record from 311, the Nebraska-bred band that built their name in the 90s with their reggae-infused rap-rock. Amazingly, this, their 12th studio album, is their most solid offering since 2001’s “From Chaos” or possibly even their self-titled offering from 1995. It actually may even be their strongest album to date. (I’m not kidding.)

They have a killer “best-of” collection. They have always been a phenomenal “singles” band, with an admittedly uneven discography, which makes the overall dynamic cohesion of “Mosaic” a solid and great surprise.

Perhaps what makes this album such a success is that over its 17 tracks it explores everything the band has always done well, from the sweet, sweeping, reggae-fueled melody of opener, “Too Much to Think,” to the heavy, downright awesome breakdown on “Too Late.” This is a band comfortable with their capabilities. Nick Hexum’s voice has rarely sounded better and he and SA Martinez still harmonize really well together, but perhaps it is the tight unit formed by guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist P-Nut and drummer Chad Sexton that serves as the band’s true draw. This is one of their tightest and most musically sophisticated offerings. How “The Night is Young” seesaws from a relaxed wah-wah-pedal exercise to a thunderous but joyous metallic romp is a testament to the band members and their musical focus.

Maturity suits this band amazingly well. I’m not sure anyone hearing “Down” or “All Mixed Up” 22 years ago would have expected a record of this level from them all these years later. The jazzy textures heard on the beginning of “Face in the Wind,” the classic-rock stomp of “Days of ‘88” and booming chorus of “Perfect Mistake” all make it clear that this is the band working at the peak of their powers. The dub-y groove on “Inside Our Home,” that gives way to colorful guitar accents also really catches the ear. “Til the City’s on Fire,” even takes a stab at dub-step-infused radio-minded pop and somehow still keeps with the band’s core sound.

Simply put, after nearly 30 years as a band, it is very clear that this is the quite possibly the strongest album that 311 can make at this point. This is one of the best and most welcome surprises of 2017. I definitely didn’t think they had a record like this still in them. I’m really glad to be wrong. With repeated listens “Mosaic” will no doubt get better and better.

Focus Tracks:

“Too Much to Think” Easily, tune-wise, this is one of their best singles, with its melodic rises and tight vocal harmonies. In a weird way it recalls the Police at their reggae-influenced peak. Sure, the title is a ridiculous pun of sorts, but this wouldn’t be a 311 record without such touches.

“Too Late” This is a constantly moving track but it is best at its heaviest points. The guitar breakdown is quite stellar.

“The Night is Young” This is a hit waiting to happen, with its wide musical scope. Again, it is best when it is allowed to fully rock.

PHOTO: 311 - Mosaic BMG
311 - Mosaic

Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory”

***1/2

Vince Staples follows up 2016’s “Prima Donna” EP with the surprisingly experimental “Big Fish Theory.” This album doesn’t quite resonate in quite the same way as 2015’s “Summertime ’06,” but it is extremely forward-thinking with its abstract drum-n-bass inspired production. Cuts like “Crabs in a Bucket” and the Damon Albarn-featuring “Love Can Be…” have a banging, sleek, club-ready backbone.

On “Alyssa Interlude” he samples a section of Amy Winehouse being interviewed. On “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium,” he plays with ambient, thunder-like sound, over a reverb-heavy dose of singing. On “Yeah Right,” he drops repetitive verses over skeletal, robotic beats, while “Homage” is both slick and slightly claustrophobic.

This whole set clocks in at a trim thirty-six minutes and change. While Staples’ lyrics don’t take a front seat like they did on “Summertime ’06,” it is clear that this album’s production is supposed to draw more attention. Some of his lyrics can be troubling if taken at face-value, but he also on the other side has a sadness hidden underneath. This range makes him hard to pin down but it also results in an interesting listen.

“Big Fish Theory” shows that Staples wants to be a ground-breaking figure, pushing the genre forward. He plays with off-kilter beats here while still maintaining the core of his roots. This is a puzzling, sometimes maddening record but it is still a bold, exciting exercise.

Side Note: If I may for a second, I’d like to address the people at Def Jam. The CD version of this album comes without a booklet or any credits. I haven’t seen this horrible an approach to packaging since Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and Mos Def’s “True Magic.” I’m sure in the age of streaming and downloads, the record company thinks people don’t care about credits and artwork. Maybe some don’t. That kind of backwards thinking is dangerous. If people pay for a CD (or vinyl) they want the information and art that should be an implied given. If you’ve watched Netflix lately and been mad like me that the credits are often automatically skipped, you’ll know that moves like this are symptomatic of a society where actual information is considered unimportant, sacrificed in the name of the easy buck and the quick fix of instant gratification. This is sad. I hope this doesn’t continue as a trend. In effect, it cheapens the end product and doesn’t give the people who created it their due. And no, a credit list on a website is not a satisfactory substitution.

Focus Tracks:

“Big Fish” Somehow fusing classic California rap flowing style with a lush, chilled club groove, this track possesses all of the great qualities of this record. It’s like “Norf Norf,” but more relaxed.

“Rain Come Down” Staples drops some introspective lyrics over a hushed house-beat while Ty Dolla $ign sings a disarmingly emotional hook. If you put all these parts together in a list on paper, you wouldn’t think the end results would be quite so winning.

“Party People” Leave it to Staples to drop some emo lyrics about existential pain at the beginning of a booming groove. This is a thunderous party jam and somehow he is able to keep a balance without seeming like he is selling out or pandering. Somehow he has it both ways.

PHOTO: Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory Def Jam Recordings
Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory

Radiohead’s “OK Computer Oknotok 1997 2017”

*****

For the 20th anniversary of their landmark third album, “OK Computer,” Radiohead has decided to reissue the album as a two-disc set. Doing so makes a clear argument that it should have been a double-album in the first place. If you have the “Airbag_How Am I Driving” EP, you have the majority of the songs on the bonus disc already. “Palo Alto” from that selection as you may recall even got a music video and received some decent airplay. Interestingly, the re-mastered version here adds a few seconds to either ends of the track, making it slightly different than it was in its original form. In addition, the reissue also includes “Lull” and “How I Made My Millions,” which are also highly celebrated B-sides of this era.

Then there are the three songs which weren’t originally included on either release. “I Promise,” “Man of War” and particularly “Lift” are all single-worthy songs that would have been clear highlights on the album. That being said, the sincere quality of “I Promise,” would have probably fit better on the second side of “The Bends,” since it lacks the underlying feeling of dread that seeps to the surface on “OK Computer.” “Lift,” on the other hand sounds like Radiohead’s answer to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mayonaise.” It would have been a hit, but again, it would have changed the overall tone of the album.

Since the success of “Creep,” Radiohead have been fighting the notion of being a commercial band. It makes you wonder what other arena-rock pleasers they still have in their back pockets. Now their legacy is set. If a single like “Lift” is what “selling out” sounds like, we have very little reason to be truly concerned. They aren’t going to ever become as banal as say, present-day Coldplay, even if Coldplay did show heavy Radiohead influence on “Parachutes.”

Listening to “OK Computer” again with 2017 ears, it still really resonates. The overstressed computerized voice in “Fitter Happier,” really captures the corporate pressures of today, while the anti-fascist sentiments in “Karma Police” are perhaps even more vital now. The doomed lullaby of “No Surprises,” the political doubletalk in “Electioneering” and the injured survivor in “Lucky” all still scream with importance. This is a timeless effort.

You can imagine why the cryptic “Kid A” followed, but this is where Radiohead hit the peak of their powers, merging arty ambitions with an accessibility they have been fleeing from ever since. To date, “OK Computer” remains their most important album. Considering the strength of their discography, that is really making a powerful statement.

Focus Tracks:

Because it can be assumed people probably know the album well, I am going to focus on the bonus material here.

“Lift” This is a Radiohead anthem of the highest order. It is the kind of song you almost forget they used to write. It has the same kind of resonance as “High and Dry” and at the same time, Thom Yorke adds in an off-putting joke at the end when he sticks it the command, “Lighten up, Squirt!” as the song’s final line. This track is also a reminder why their more rock and guitar-driven elements are missed.

“I Promise” This is very sweet and straightforward. It actually might be their most straight-forward song of their career.

“Man of War” Part of me wants to re-sequence the album and put this song between “Climbing up the Walls” and “No Surprises.” Of these three previously unreleased tracks, it is the one that fits the standard album’s mood the best.

PHOTO: Radiohead - OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 XL Recordings
Radiohead - OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017

Prince’s “Purple Rain Deluxe” (Expanded Edition)

*****

As basically an excuse to raid Prince’s vault, the “Purple Rain” soundtrack has been reissued. In its expanded form, it goes from nine cuts to 35. This includes an assortment of B-sides, extended versions and remixes. This also includes songs that I’m guessing Prince probably wouldn’t want released if he were still alive. Yes, “Darling Nikki” is the song that caused Tipper Gore to found the P.M.R.C. and institute the parental warning stickers, but in his later years after he became a Jehovah’s Witness, The Purple One essentially denounced the scandalous, sexual side to his music. But “Purple Rain,” was released back in 1984, at the peak of his most shocking period. So, among the B-sides we have gems like “We Can F--k,” “Erotic City,” “Velvet Kitty Cat,” “Electric Intercourse” and “Wonderful A--.”

On this three-hour-plus set, it is evident that Prince really kept the thread going, playing with some now dated electro elements but adding some classic rock appeal. “Purple Rain,” was where Prince kept the momentum that he achieved in the wake of “1999.” It’s not surprising that even though he cut it down to nine songs, this could have been an even more significant offering. This is still very much a product of its time, but it has aged extremely well, nonetheless.

This set also shows how the singles were severely trimmed for radio airplay. The standard album version of the title-track clocks in at 8:45. The 7” edit is a mere 4:05. “When Doves Cry” goes from 5:53 to 3:48. On the flip-side, “I Would Die 4 U” somehow ends up being four seconds longer in its “single edit” form, but then again, both versions remain under the two-minute mark.

In just over a year since Prince’s death, his music has gained even more resonance. It is probably a safe bet to expect more reissues of this type from his key releases. Although “Purple Rain” was a quintessential 80s release, it still packs a lot of power in 2017.

Focus Tracks:

Because it can be assumed people probably know the album well, I am going to focus on the bonus material here.

"Computer Blue" ("Hallway Speech" version) This should have been the album version. It significantly increases the amount of spoken vocal input from Wendy and Lisa, adding some cryptic lines about a lonely computer and a passage about “love” vs. “lust.” The beginning of song is still the most haunting part. Somehow their back-and-forth exchange comes off as remarkably subversive and it all comes down to their vocal tone. After all, all they ask each other is “Is the water warm enough?” and “Shall we begin?” Prince knew exactly how a track should begin.

“Velvet Kitty Cat” In a weird way this is like a classic rock and roll song played with keyboards and drum machines. Somehow this could have been a Chuck Berry song on some level.

“Katrina’s Paper Dolls” This lost electro-pop jam would have been a highlight had it been included on the original album.

PHOTO: Prince - Purple Rain Deluxe (Expanded Edition) [Explicit] Warner Bros. Records
Prince - Purple Rain Deluxe (Expanded Edition) [Explicit]

Big Star’s “The Best of Big Star”

*****

Alex Chilton and Chris Bell didn’t probably realize it at the time, but they basically created a modern blueprint for indie-rock when they recorded their 1972 debut “#1 Record.” Big Star never really got their due. Their albums didn’t sell well because of a lack of distribution, but it does seem like most people who listened to Big Star’s albums happened to be musicians themselves, so you can hear echoes of their influence in later records by the likes of the Replacements, R.E.M., Elliott Smith and more.

It’s fitting that Big Star would get a “best of;” They’ve long been worthy. Of course by the time their second album came along, Bell had left the band. (He would later die in a car accident in 1978.) But Chilton continued in Bell’s absence with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens by his side for “Radio City” (1974). Things would get murky in 1975 for their third record, which was fittingly called “Third.” At that point, Chilton was just following his muses and sometimes they’d take him to some dark places.

The majority of this collection is taken from “#1 Record” and “Radio City” with only four of the 16 tracks from the “Third” sessions. Singles like “Thirteen,” “September Gurls” and “Jesus Christ” are here in all their glory. A chronological track order would have been better, but this collection does the trick, effectively compiling the most classic cuts from all three records. It also includes many of these songs in their “single mix” and “single edit” forms, which were perhaps harder to find before now. It also doesn’t include anything from the band’s 2005 comeback record, “In Space,” which Chilton and Stephens made with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies in the band. “In Space” was decent but not as classic as those core three original records, so its omission is understandable.

“In the Street” will be recognizable to fans of “That 70’s Show,” whereas songs like “I’m In Love With a Girl,” “Back of a Car,” “The Ballad of El Goodo” and more have been licensed and covered many times over the years. Big Star should have been one of the most successful American bands of the 70s. They were about to finally get their victory lap in 2010 when they were set to perform at SXSW festival. A week before the scheduled performance, Chilton died of a heart attack at 59. A few months later, original bassist Andy Hummel would die of cancer. Stephens is the only surviving member of the original band. Big Star seemed to be handed blows at every turn.

With Big Star, both Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had come into their own as singer-songwriters. Chilton, the once oddly gravelly-voiced teenager behind the mic for the Box Tops and Bell, whose solo album, the excellent “I Am the Cosmos” would eventually see posthumous release in 1992.

The music of Big Star deserves to be known. They captured something quintessential and nostalgic. “The Best of Big Star” will serve as a more than fitting introduction to new fans.

Focus Tracks:

“September Gurls” (single version) I would argue that this song is Chilton’s true masterpiece. It’s a timeless power-pop gem. The Bangles famously covered it on their “Different Light” album.

“Thirteen” Arguably their most well-known song, this acoustic tale of young love has been covered over the years by the likes of Elliott Smith, Garbage and more. It still stands as a bit of youthful nostalgia, even if depending on whether the narrator is a peer or someone older, it could have some creepier context. That ambiguity has bothered some. I prefer to view the narrator and subject as peers. It’s a much sweeter song that way.

“In The Street” (single mix) The basis for the theme to “That 70’s Show,” this song is a timeless anthem of youthful, suburban boredom.

PHOTO: Big Star - The Best of Big Star Big Beat Records
Big Star - The Best of Big Star

Next week: New music from TLC, Beach House, Washed Out and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Lorde, Ride, Fleet Foxes and Sebastian Blanck and more.