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Five for Friday: Optimistic Albums

The holidays are almost always guaranteed to cause at least a little stress. Whether it's too much time with family, confusion over what gifts to buy, or unwanted conversations about world events with relatives, something, however minor, usually goes awry. As we close the final chapter on 2016 and look to 2017, let's leave the anxiety behind. New year, new beginnings, new resolutions, and new music. We'll be discussing the latter quite often around these parts, but today, we pause, relax, and dig up some albums that put a smile on our face. Here are five albums that give reason for optimism.

Outkast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
More than a decade after its release, Outkast's expansive 2CD/4LP collection remains a joy. It's an instant recipe to "feeling good, feeling great" as the album's first proper song, "GhettoMusick," declares in multiple voices – including one that sounds like a helium-assisted robot. Essentially two solo works – one from Big Boi, the other from Andre 3000 – the joint albums use hip-hop as a jumping-off point to otherworldly sounds. Vide, the jazzy rock "Love Hater," reggae hip-hop of "War," or basically everything about one of the greatest party anthems of all time, "Hey Ya!" Songs, such Big Boi's "The Way You Move," possess both a Southern grit and sexiness that would make Prince proud. By contrast, Andre 3000 works such as "Dracula's Wedding" feature funky electronics that consistently surprise.

Shamir Ratchet
No collection of optimistic albums would be complete without a work that channels the pure ecstasy of dance music. We're going with a modern classic, one that nods to 70s giants Chic as well as the move-all-night-long, underground house music of the 80s. Then there's Shamir's gender-bending voice and love for rock n' roll. If you are thinking Prince (there's that name again), you wouldn't be far off the mark: Shamir remains a star in the making. "On the Regular" rides a clanging, minimal beat and an elastic groove straight to the club, while the ping-pong springs of "Make a Scene" build to what should be a laser-light show of nuttiness. Shamir captures the full spectrum of the night, from the blinding lights and honking horns that channel the near-last-call vibe of "In for the Kill" to the soothing after-hours feel of "Head in the Clouds."

Kelis Food
Who needs love when there's food? "Even more than just a man, you've really been my friend," Kelis sings to open the album during "Breakfast," a bumping, bass-heavy hip-shaker dedicated to the pleasures of cooking and eating. The whole record, in fact, celebrates all things cooking and eating, making it the rare (only?) album to solely focus on one of life's other great carnal – and carnivorous – activities. Yet the "Milkshake" star, with a sweetly raspy voice, manages to turn a potentially goofy concept into a frisky and borderline-experimental R&B set. She knows her stuff – she's not only a proven hitmaker, but also a trained chef – and songs are packed full of ingredients. "Jerk Ribs" shimmies with symphonic horns, "Hooch" gets down and dirty with 70s-inspired R&B (and spine-tingling oohing and ahhing), and "Rumble" is built on a teasing piano and bluesy sax. Wait: Maybe this isn't all about food after all?

The Pooh Sticks Optimistic Fool
Like the name implies, Welsh outfit the Pooh Sticks could at times be something of a joke. Yet the band was also an unadulterated celebration of pure power pop, composing songs that could sound like the Monkees in one moment and Cheap Trick in another. Optimistic Fool takes things a little more seriously, with sharp guitar riffs and buoyant backing vocals on every track. "Cool in a Crisis" piles one solo on top of another as it thematically looks up in awe at a significant other, while the giddy "Opening Night," full of bells "ringing, dinging," captures the euphoria of a crush. The jangly "Starfishing" sounds like summer, and the hand-clap-addled "Working on a Beautiful Thing" engages with infectious playground jumpiness. A bit of a cult hit when released in 1995, Optimistic Fool remains one of the happiest albums ever made.

Ramones Ramones: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Even outsiders need a soundtrack for rejoicing. The Ramones' debut remains one of the most exciting rock n' roll records ever recorded, and a recent 40th anniversary edition comes loaded with goodies and oddities. There's the blistering rush of "Blitzkrieg Bop," of course, as well as the teenaged-crush pining of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." Each of these originals represents not just a defining moment for punk rock but also for sugary, high-energy pop. This LP/3-CD set goes deep into the album's beginnings with demos and alternate versions. Hear "I Don't Care" at its most sludgy and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" as a buzzy blast of harmonies and guitars. What's more, a mono mix of the album captures how it deserves to be heard while a live disc showcases how the band needed to be experienced.

December 30, 2016

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