David Bowie – “★”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Blackstar” “Girl Loves Me”

I wrote this on the day of the album’s release and decided not to change it after his passing. Rest easy, Starman. Thanks for everything.

Bowie’s return to weirdness has been so natural, it’s easy to forget he spent a decade in retirement and the previous decade in a creative decline. His new album, his 26th, is among the strangest and most provocative he’s ever released. It seems like Bowie spent his decade in retirement (2003-2013) reminiscing on his own career. Throughout all the characters Bowie has performed as over the years, there’s really only been two real ones – pop Bowie, and terrifying avant-garde Bowie. His excellent 2013 comeback album “The Next Day” was pop Bowie, middling, introspective rock songs and ballads about growing old in a culture that values youth. He sounded pained but not so much remorseful as satisfied with himself. It seemed like a final album, a send-off, a ‘thanks for listening.’ Then this happened.

The opening song on “Blackstar” (officially titled ““) is “Blackstar,” in spelled-out form. It is only 17 seconds shorter than his longest, the 10:14 classic “Station to Station.” It originally surpassed 11 minutes but Bowie and longtime co-producer Tony Visconti sliced it down to 10 so they could release it as a single on iTunes (Bowie is a man of the people). Bowie’s vocals mix with the free-form jazz to sound somewhat akin to Scott Walker. It’s less “Diamond Dogs” and more “Bish Bosch,” and it’s hard not to imagine Walker when listening, another musician who had a modest start before growing increasingly ambitious and experimental (and who has been around even longer!)

There’s only seven songs on this album, with the title track accounting for slightly under 1/4 of the album’s length. It is less rock, less pop, and more free-form jazz. Bowie and co. have said they were listening to “To Pimp a Butterfly” when they wrote this, saying Kendrick Lamar’s attention to blending genres inspired them to do the same. But it sounds more like Bowie was listening to himself. “Blackstar” and it’s video have maybe-references to satanist Aleister Crowley, who was a heavy inspiration to Bowie during the “Station to Station” recording session. And “Lazarus” includes the line “I used up all my money / I was looking for your ass,” which sure seems to mimic the self-description in “Ziggy Stardust,” “With god-given ass.” Elsewhere, he sings the plot of the 17th century play “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” in a song with the same name, an incestual, murderous tale.

Musically, the album walks the line of free-form jazz, almost always maintaining a steady beat but allowing for tempo changes (“Blackstar”) and avant-garde horn freakouts (“‘Tis a Pity…”). A majority of the songs are heavy on horns and drums, with less guitar. Bowie often, and sometimes unexpectedly, gives way to the music. The influence of Lamar is only a spiritual level, but “Girl Loves Me” does have a beat that sounds hip-hop inspired.

With all the characters and personae that Bowie has performed as over the decades, it’s easy to forget just how he became famous at all – he’s got an insanely good voice. It comes through here, especially on “Girl Loves Me” and “Lazarus” but across the whole album. “Girl Loves Me” is an enchanting, almost hymn-like song with Bowie’s voice in both the fore and background. It’s the strongest vocal song on the album. He sounds restrained throughout, like it’s all part of an avant nightmare. The only real exception is “‘Tis a Pity…” where his vocals sound more pronounced, more confident.

There is no character here. “” is a glorious and scary mess that is haunting because there’s no character – this is an album Bowie and co. wanted to make. It’s one of the least accessible albums he’s made in his entire career, and it will surely be placed alongside “Station” and “Let’s Dance” among his best work. This does not sound like a final album, but if it is, then Bowie is requesting demanding that we remember him primarily as an artist, an ambitious one unafraid to make something jarring and remote, and not as a successful pop songwriter. “I am not a film star,” he muses on the title track, even with great turns in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth, and, sure, Zoolander. He’s deeper than those roles. He is a blackstar, something theoretical, something deep, massive and annihilating. He is also demanding that, like Lazarus, he live on far past his actual self. Don’t worry, Bowie, you’re going to.

-By Andrew McNally

Wilco – “Star Wars”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “You Satellite” “Where Do I Belong”

Wilco are at an important point in their career. Like many artists before them – namely David Bowie, who they channel heavily here on their ninth album – they’re at a point where they’re growing restless again. Wilco established their original sound, as an alt-country band. And then, out of nowhere came “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” their creative reawakening albums (although in most band trajectories, this period comes from creative woes, not accidental painkiller addictions). After Jeff Tweedy recovered, the band’s sound settled into a more mature, introspective look with the still-excellent “Sky Blue Sky.” And the two albums since then have seen the band embrace their catalog as a whole, both poking fun and honoring their creativity of the past.

But, like Bowie did on “The Next Day,” they’re again growing restless with maturity. “Star Wars” is unlike any other Wilco album, in many ways. For on thing, it’s called “Star Wars.” Also, the cover has an adorable cat on it. It looks more like the cover for a Dusty Springfield record, not a Wilco one. And the songs are shortened, tightened and energized. There’s certainly other Wilco songs that would feel comfortable on this album – “Shot in the Arm,” “Wilco (the Song)” come to mind. But the band has created songs that don’t give themselves room to breathe. At 2:30, “Pickled Ginger” sounds just like a cut Deep Purple song with it’s fuzzed-out, grinding guitar line. Although “Star Wars” is distinctively Wilco, the songs here have traveled a long way from “Impossible Germany.” And it’s not a criticism – it’s a familiar sound, in an unfamiliar package. At 33:47, it’s the band’s shortest album by nearly ten minutes (ten minutes being two-thirds the length of their longest song). And as a band that’s stayed reliant to the album format, their decision to drop this release suddenly and for free online is growth as well.

Although the band has been playfully looking back at their earlier works in recent years, “Star Wars” marks the first time in years that they’ve actually incorporated any elements with an avant garde feel. They come mainly in the opener, “EKG,” a 1:15 chippy, dissonant intro that doesn’t serve as a standalong song, instead as a declaration of what’s to come.

Also, Jeff Tweedy as a frontman and songwriter seems to be less of a focus on this album. Something noticeable about one the album’s best songs, “You Satellite,” is that the volume of his vocals is closer to the rest of the instruments, instead of being at the forefront. And eventually, he gives way to the music entirely. Tweedy’s lyrics on this album aren’t his best (they’re a lot vaguer than past Wilco albums), but the focus is on the music and the vibe anyways. The longer they’ve been around, and especially since they’ve developed a more steady line-up, Wilco has seemed more like a full band and less like a collective.

Wilco haven’t released a mediocre album since 1999’s “Summerteeth,” but it’s been a long time since they’ve released a great one, too, and that’s just what “Star Wars” is. This is their best album since “Sky Blue Sky” in 2007 and, if you like just fun and lively Wilco, then before that. There are moments of beauty and grace on “Star Wars,” especially in affectionate closer “Magnetized.” But more often than not, those moments are often followed up by a sudden drum line, feedback or guitar melting. Just as you would expect from a band growing restless yet again.

If you like this, try: This one’s probably obvious since I mentioned it, but it’s stylistically and tonally resembling of Bowie’s “The Next Day,” if not actually all that similar.