Music Reviews: The Latest From One Direction, Wilco, David Bowie, and More

Which albums should you be listening to this weekend?

— -- intro: This week, One Direction return with their fourth album, Wilco drop four discs of rare cuts, David Bowie chronicles his entire career in three discs, Lorde curates the soundtrack for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” Paul McCartney gets the tribute treatment, art-rock outfit TV On The Radio deliver their latest, “Seeds,” and Canadian outfit Nickelback deliver an electro-tinged version of their brand of rock. There actually may be a little something for everyone here.

quicklist: 1 title: One Direction’s “Four (The Ultimate Edition)” ** text: It sounds OK, production-wise, and is listenable, but there isn’t an original or refreshing moment on “Four,” which if you can’t tell from the title is indeed One Direction’s fourth album. In form, it even sounds like a recycled and more refined version of their last album, “Midnight Memories,” in the way that it tries to infuse elements of folk and rock into the group’s boy-band formula. The result leads to “Lite radio” ballads like “Fireproof” and “Stockholm Syndrome.” These songs sound like repurposed '80s clichés used as a mask to give the idea of maturity. But don’t be fooled. These songs still sound like they are straight from a songwriting mill.

“Steal My Girl” has been accused in the press of sounding like Journey’s “Faithfully” and Hayley Williams of Paramore has publicly accused it of also sounding like New Found Glory’s “It’s Not Your Fault.” Both assessments are correct. It sounds like an even hybrid of both. Basically, while this album will play well to the passing fan who may not be old enough to be schooled in music history, to everyone else, this album could feel like a sonic retread through the history of tired love songs. This album takes the easy route at every turn. “Ready to Run” easily recalls Phillip Phillips’ “Home” and it could also be considered “The Story of My Life Part Two.” Naming a song “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is not only basic, at this point, but it also robs Whitney Houston, who recorded a much better song with the same title.

An article on Billboard's website in late September proudly showcased the headline, “Don’t Look Now But One Direction Are Making Great Rock Music.” This is not in fact “great rock music.” It is barely “rock music.” This is more of a bubblegum pop pillaging the past. If “Midnight Memories” offered up surprises with its “maturity,” this record squanders that goodwill with its blatant targeting.

Again, this record might play well for your 10 year old niece, but if she likes this, there are plenty of infinitely better records she deserves to hear before this one. The harmonies and instrumentation are tight here, but that still doesn’t disguise the fact that this album is simply a carefully crafted exercise. The people who successfully escape the teen-pop world do so by taking risks. While there may be more guitars here, there really aren’t many risks. After the slight upswing of “Midnight Memories,” now should be the time to really branch out further.

Focus Tracks:

“18” Yes, this song opens with a riff that sounds very much like it was ripped from U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.” There’s even a touch of “All I Want Is You” in there, and the guitar work at the end of the song sounds extremely Edge-esque, but this is one of the few love songs on here that kind of works. Never mind the absurdity of the chorus, “I have loved you since you were 18,” considering the band members themselves range in age from 20 to 22. If they grew up with their subject, that’s only a two-to-four year relationship and, in the scheme of things, that’s not long at all. All that being said, this should be a hit.

“Girl Almighty” Formula = take a “Hey Ya” beat and mix it with a pseudo new-wave groove. This is probably the most winning, upbeat song on the set, even if you can see right through its intentions.

“Once In a Lifetime” It seems aptly appropriate that two of the better songs on the record would only be on the deluxe edition. This song actually wins because the harmonies and the melody recall groups from the '70s like Bread and America. The tune also takes some interesting turns. The other bonus track of note is the Irish-tinged romp, “Act My Age,” which actually feels like it steps slightly out of the formula.

quicklist: 2 title: Wilco’s “Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2004” **** text: Wilco released a somewhat massive box of rarities this week containing four-discs-worth of outtakes, alternate versions and live cuts from their 20-year career. This is actually a must-have for die-hard fans. It fills in some blank spots in their career as they morphed from Jeff Tweedy’s post-Uncle Tupelo, alt-country outfit into more adult alternative rockers. Two tracks feature singer Syd Straw and there are a few really decent covers on the set, as well, including readings of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Burned,” Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and more.

Besides the two Syd Straw appearances, other guests pop up around the set, including Roger McGuinn, Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird.

The liner notes are quite extensive, too, with entries about the origins of just about every track. Considering this collection has 77 tracks and also comes with an impressive booklet, it is also rather economically priced.

Really, the feeling that comes across after listening to this massive set is that the members of Wilco deliver respectable, workman-like rock and they hold the torch that groups like The Band used to carry. This week also sees the release of a two-disc best-of, “What’s Your 20?” Jeff Tweedy is now busy working with his son in the band Tweedy, so hopefully this culling and clearing out the vaults isn’t a sign of the end for Wilco and is merely a way to celebrate their 20th anniversary. But if it is the end, they have indeed left quite a legacy.

Focus Tracks:

“True Love Will Find You in the End” This may be Daniel Johnston’s masterpiece and it has rightly been covered by the likes of Beck and Elizabeth & The Catapult. Wilco, too give this song the gentleness it deserves with their country-tinged reading.

“I’m the Man Who Loves You” (Live) Somehow this live version sounds both more ragged and cleaner (more reductionist) than the version on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” This sounds in many ways like it could have been a radio hit in the '70s in spite of the gleefully shredding guitar solo, and the bass really pops. This probably sounds great on vinyl.

“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (Live) This 10-minute workout, originally on “A Ghost Is Born,” is a true sonic explosion in its live-form. As a live act, Wilco are quite striking.

quicklist: 3 title: David Bowie’s “Nothing Has Changed” ****1/2 text: This three-disc best-of is a much needed collection chronicling the entirety of David Bowie’s career up until this point. There should be an unwritten rule that compilations of this sort should always be presented in chronological order. Bowie sort of does this, but with a twist. He presents all of these songs in backwards order, meaning that the set opens with a new track, “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” a moody, enthralling, 7-minute, jazz-flavored jam, and ends with his early singles “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving Me” and “Liza Jane” from back before he adopted the surname of Bowie and was using his given name of Jones. (He made the name change in order to not be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees.)

This is a great collection, especially as an introduction, even if its inverse track order can make for a bit of a discombobulating listening experience. There are little complaints here and there as far as song consideration goes, like the fact that Bowie’s cover of “Dancing In The Streets” with Mick Jagger is still pretty horrid no matter how you slice it, and that late-career gems like “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” and “Valentine’s Day” should have seen inclusion. But overall, this is a truly effective overview of a classic career. For casual listeners, I’d probably still recommend the 2002 one-disc collection, “Best Of Bowie,” over this as a more solid starting point, but fans looking for a more extensive view with some rare remixes and a wider scope should give this compilation a spin.

On a separate note, I hope it doesn’t take Bowie another decade to follow up last year’s excellent album, “The Next Day.” I hope this compilation isn’t signaling any sort of end. Bowie is a master and we still need him to make music for years to come.

Focus Tracks:

“Space Oddity” (UK Single Edit) This is probably Bowie’s most iconic song in a career packed with other iconic songs. He will forever be as identified with Major Tom, as he will be with the slightly later character of Ziggy Stardust. And this is still quite an amazingly arranged orchestral piece. It’s remarkably produced.

“Rebel Rebel” This is not only one of Bowie’s best riffs but it is also one of the most recognizable riffs in the history of rock.

“Modern Love” This is Bowie’s best pop moment of the '80s.

“I’m Afraid of Americans (V1)” In the '90s, Bowie started hanging with Trent Reznor. This single is one his absolute best as he enters into a semi-industrial/trip-hop/electronica realm. Also from this era worth seeking out is this single’s slight precursor, “Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”

quicklist: 4 title: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack **** text: The latest “Hunger Games” soundtrack was expertly curated by Lorde, proving that this 18-year old continues to have taste and skill beyond her years. She picks plenty of like-minded artists like Chvrches, Charli XCX, Bat for Lashes, Tove Lo and Tinashe. Only Major Lazer’s “All My Love” featuring Ariana Grande fails to impress, but that’s mostly because of Grande’s continued lack of enunciation. Grace Jones gives the album its most pleasurably weird moment with her wonderfully bizarre “Original Beast,” while it is really cool to hear Q-Tip’s voice next to Lorde’s as they both guest on Stromae’s “Meltdown” alongside Pusha T and Haim. Lorde makes another (uncredited) guest appearance on the Chemical Brothers’ track with Miguel, “This Is Not a Game,” where she playfully speaks the words “there it is” over and over. It’s definitely a cool moment.

Not only is this, for the most part, an evenly thrilling soundtrack, but it also points to the fact that we seem to be in the midst of a resurgence of intelligent synth pop. Most of the acts here have delivered top-notch records of their own, fusing technical know-how with well-crafted songwriting. This could have easily been a flashy money grab. It’s not. Just about everyone brought the goods this time around.

Lorde should get to curate more soundtracks after her success here.

Focus Tracks:

“Kingdom,” Charli XCX (featuring Simon Le Bon) Yes, that’s right. Fresh off the soundtrack success that she had with “Boom Clap” on “The Fault in Our Stars,” Charli XCX effectively teams up with Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon for this beautiful, trippy ballad. To be fair, Le Bon’s portion comes as a quick 26-second-long bridge, but it works seamlessly. Considering most of the musicians in this new synth-pop crop were probably influenced greatly by their parents’ worn copies of “Rio,” Le Bon’s presence really means something. And Charli XCX is building up quite a lot of promise for her new album “Sucker,” which is set to drop next month.

“Scream My Name," Tove Lo Tove Lo’s “Queen of the Clouds” is one of the best and catchiest pop albums of the year. “Scream My Name” sounds very much like it belongs on that record with plenty of the same combination of aggressively sensual angst and attitude that has very quickly become her sonic signature. I wish the chorus wasn’t censored. And it appears to be censored across the board, but that’s probably the result of the studio and the record label not wanting to put an advisory sticker on a soundtrack to a movie rated PG-13.

“Dead Air,” Chvrches If you love Chvrches’ album from last year, you’ll love this song, too. It’s very much in the same vein as hits “Recover” and “The Mother That We Share.”

“Yellow Flicker Beat”, “Flicker Kanye Rework” and “Ladder Song," all by Lorde Lorde delivers three tracks under her own name. One is the single, “Yellow Flicker Beat,” the second is a remix by Kanye West. (No he doesn’t drop a verse. He just gives it an effective post-“Yeezus” subtle uneasiness.) The third is the organ-driven ballad, “Ladder Song.” All three tracks prove without a doubt that the success of her album, “Pure Heroine,” was no fluke.

quicklist: 5 title: Various Artists’ “The Art of McCartney” **1/2 text: As with any tribute album, usually the source material is first rate and the quality ends up being determined by who shows up to contribute.

“The Art Of McCartney,” which is, of course, an expansive tribute to Sir Paul, is an extremely mixed bag. While The Cure deliver a spot-on version of “Hello Goodbye” with the help of Paul’s son, James McCartney, we also get some duds. Barry Gibb delivers a fine version of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” while Willie Nelson gives “Yesterday” a fitting reading. But then on the flip side there is Sammy Hagar’s hammy, shouted rendition of “Birthday,” or Owl City’s forgettable version of “Listen to What The Man Said.” The collection is an even mix of positives and negatives. Allen Toussaint nails his version of “Lady Madonna” while Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley belong nowhere near “Venus and Mars/Rock Show.” Bob Dylan hoarseness is an unavoidable distraction on his version of “Things We Said Today,” while Billy Joel sounds like he’s trying to yell “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He has better luck with “Live and Let Die.” Alice Cooper does an OK reading of “Eleanor Rigby” while Perry Farrell sounds amazingly like he’s singing to virtually the original backing track of “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Corinne Bailey Rae captures the sweetness of “Bluebird” while Heart play up the sappy side of “Band on the Run.”

The biggest crime of this set, though is that it just feels forced for many of these artists. The arrangements often remain a little too faithful to the original versions. McCartney’s work has been celebrated so much in much better ways in the past that much of this collection is almost needless. There are a few surprises, but not as many as there really should be.

Focus Tracks:

“Hello Goodbye,” The Cure & James McCartney Yes, this arrangement doesn’t take many risks, but any song The Cure's Robert Smith touches, he makes his own. It’s amazing how well he fits into this song. It’s something I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted.

“Bluebird,” Corinne Bailey Rae Corinne Bailey Rae needs a new album as soon as possible, and this warm, R&B reading of “Bluebird” works perfectly.

“Lady Madonna,” Allen Toussaint Toussaint brings the right New Orleans groove to this Beatles classic.

“Put It There,” Peter Bjorn & John (Amazon Exclusive) Peter Bjorn & John deliver a perfect reading of this song. So much so that it shouldn’t strictly be an Amazon exclusive.

quicklist: 6 title: TV On The Radio’s “Seeds” **** text: On TV On The Radio’s latest album, the band drops many of the aspects that have made them somewhat polarizing in the past. Gone, for the most part, are the tedious falsetto vocal breaks and the jittery elements that tarnished some of their past work. What is left is a lush brand of new-wave that recalls the effective single “Will Do” from their last album, “Nine Types of Light.” For me, this record is easily one of their most cohesive pieces of work, while abandoning the hipster-ish elements of previous albums like “Dear Science” and “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes.” In fact, this is their most sonically successful effort since 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain.” I know in certain circles, “Dear Science” is extremely revered, but I have always found it to be a tedious mess.

The songs on “Seeds,” however, do not feel forced and they don’t seem particularly labored, either, meaning that they have an airiness about them that is both enveloping and comforting. “Happy Idiot” is peppy but it doesn’t force anything. It’s just a nice infusion of early-'80s Cure and New Order influence.

Vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are toned down here compared to previous records. This is a meditative album by their standards and it has a somber, relaxed feeling throughout, even on the faster-paced numbers. This is, after all, the first album they’ve recorded since the 2011 death of multi-instrumentalist Gerard Smith, who lost his battle with lung cancer at just 36.

Throughout the set, this album sounds like an understated celebration with occasional tinges of sadness. Don’t get me wrong, this album still rocks effectively on tracks like “Winter,” and “Lazerray” but you can tell that more rules were put in place than before.

Perhaps this new focus is due to the growing experience of producer and band member David Andrew Sitek, who this year expertly helmed Kelis’ game-changing album, “Food,” and last year did excellent work on Beady Eye’s apparent swan-song, “Be.” In 2011, Sitek also served as Jane’s Addiction’s bassist on their album, “The Great Escape Artist.” The spacey sound of this record actually recalls some of the airiest moments on that record.

“Seeds” is a nice surprise, providing TV On The Radio’s most satisfying listen to date.

Focus Tracks:

“Happy Idiot” This is an ace slice of new wave. The chorus of “I’m a happy idiot/Waving at cars” always brings a chuckle. The car-racing-themed video is also strangely hilarious.

“Test Pilot” This is trippy, ethereal, melodic single waiting to happen. If you want a good example of this album’s sound, this track does the trick.

“Lazerray” More upbeat than the bulk of the record, this is some effectively futuristic, melodic, three-chord punk.

quicklist: 7 title: Nickelback’s “No Fixed Address” *1/2 text: If you were to take a poll of music fans, you’d probably find that Nickelback is most likely one of the most frequently maligned bands working today. The thing is, most of the people who criticize them have most likely never actually sat through listening to an entire Nickelback record. Yes, they have been an easy target since they released the single, “How You Remind Me,” which sounded like someone put a Faith Hill influence through a hackneyed, post-grunge filter. Nickelback have always been polarizing, but they also have their share of fans. Their albums almost always sell decently, which means their critics tend to be much louder than their fans.

If the only songs you know by Nickelback are “How You Remind Me” or its follow-up, “Too Bad,” both from what is probably still their most recognized album, “Silver Side Up,” you’ve missed the years since when they’ve flirted with gruffer, more ham-fisted rock and even ventured momentarily into semi-country territory. “No Fixed Address” has a pseudo-electronic sheen that sounds quite ill-fitting. In comparison to new tracks like “Edge of a Revolution” or the sloppy blues/funk of “She Keeps Me Up,” the earlier songs I mentioned are downright masterpieces.

Chad Kroeger delivers songs like “Make Me Believe Again” and “The Hammer’s Coming Down” with the kind of laughable earnestness that used to make Creed’s Scott Stapp a punchline. In many ways, with the absence of Creed, Nickelback have essentially become the heirs of the bile.

You can point at the awkward shape-shifting throughout the set, or Kroeger’s often absurdly pedestrian lyrics, but really what fails Nickelback the most here is the funked-up electro-shine across the record on the whole and the awkward pop posturing throughout. It essentially all doesn’t work together. When Flo Rida strangely shows up during “Got Me Runnin’ Round,” it’s only after Kroeger has delivered absurd lines like “She tastes like the sunshine kissing me/Even sweeter than honey on a bumblebee.” There’s even a sleazy mention of “motor-boating on a blonde girl.” After a point, you have to wonder how much of this is actually a joke and how much of this is to be taken seriously.

Honestly, when they began, they were just a so-so rock band, but as time has progressed, it has become more and more obvious that they keep leaning further into rock clichés. It is almost as if they have accepted their place in rock by embracing so many cheeseball elements. Surely, they can make better records than “No Fixed Address.”

Focus Tracks:

“Edge of a Revolution” I’ll be honest. There’s not a truly solid song on this set, but this is probably the best representative of the album’s sound, with its chugging guitars, massive production and its serious lyrics about the ills of society. On this record, it doesn’t get much better than this.

“Sister Sin” This is a bluesy country workout with a stomping drive. It’s very stereotypical, but it will probably be a single for them.

Next week Beyoncé, Coldplay and more.

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