Mary J. Blige, Smashing Pumpkins and Astral Social Club 

Sound Advice

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Mary J. Blige

London Sessions

Capitol Records

File next to: Jennifer Hudson, Aaliyah

Some might pass this album by after noting that the U.K.'s insufferable soul stylist Sam Smith is one of the collaborators. But Blige has made these sessions a career-defining moment in the way Dusty Springfield did with Dusty in Memphis. Co-producers like Disclosure and Naughty Boy know just how to parse the studio tricks and bring Blige's voice front and center, in superb tracks like "Whole Damn Year" and "When You're Gone." Blige has reached the point where an R&B and pop singer must release a grown-up work, and this is an album of unique directness and minimalism. At a time when solo recording artists either reach for unfamiliar territory and stumble, or lavish familiar works with orchestral overkill, London Sessions stands apart as the quintessential Mary J. Blige album. — Loring Wirbel

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Smashing Pumpkins

Monuments to an Elegy

Martha's Music / BMG

File Next To: A Perfect Circle, The Cure

Monuments to an Elegy is 32 minutes of dreamy rock in dun pastels. Synths add interesting textures under and beside the guitars on the songs "Drum + Fife" and "Anaise!" but when Billy Corgan tries to lead with synths on tracks like "Dorian," he stumbles. There's only one track where session drummer Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe) gets to open up ("Monuments"), but Crüe-level swagger would be out of place here anyway. Corgan's singing is wedged in his middle range, with neither vulnerability nor sneer leading the way. The whole album feels familiar, with a few interesting patterns and details to enjoy. It's safe enough to leave with your kids, soft and rounded, with no edges for you to cut yourself on. It's a pretty new case for the same old pillow ... but I asked Santa for a guitar, and this isn't a guitar. — Griffin Swartzell

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Astral Social Club

Fountain Transmitter Medications

VHF Records

File next to: Fripp & Eno, Jessica Rylan

A leading free-jazz musician in England, guitarist Neil Campbell is responsible for Leeds projects like Vibracathedral Orchestra and his hyper-prolific smaller ensemble, Astral Social Club. While early ASC recordings recalled the longer droning compositions of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, later works emphasize the beat. Think of them as electronic drones going to a disco. The new Fountain Transmitter Medications is a special CD-and-LP combination — including digital downloads of the vinyl tracks — which showcases 107 minutes of what ASC does best. "Diamonds in the Dreich" may be the cut to remember, but tracks like "Infinity Thug" and 'Squeegee Anthem #3" are diverse enough to make it seem like multiple bands are playing. Someday, Campbell might be remembered alongside John Cage or Philip Glass. If you need an introduction, start here. — Loring Wirbel


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