OK, if you’re like me, it’s two days before Christmas, and you still haven’t finished your shopping. Maybe you haven’t even started. Well, I always say, give the gift of music! Here are three of 2004’s highest profile releases to consider:

u2U2
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
(Interscope)
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Driven by the high-octane guitar riffing single “Vertigo,” U2’s latest CD kicks off on the right note, but then sinks too frequently into long drawn-out passages of bass-beating, guitar strumming dull-dom. Nevertheless, there are saving graces. While it drags on too long, the bluesy strut of “Love and Peace Or Else” is worth a play, and the guitar flicker at the start of “City of Blinding Lights” will remind fans of the band’s Joshua Tree era. Late in the album, they return to a more straight-ahead rock mode with the pounding jam of “All Because of You.” But overall, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is more contemplative than rockin’. Look at their back catalogue for fist-raising anthems…but this one is good for background noise.


Green DayGreen Day
American Idiot
(Reprise)
    


Green Day’s first album in four years finds the punk rock trio still firmly in control of their infectious three-chord songcraft, with nods at the ‘60s harmonies of The Who and the thematic ferocity of Bad Religion. And like Warning and Insomniac, the boys aren’t content to simply trot out a dozen new anthems that sound like carbon copies of their hits of yore.

Oh the sound is still the same, but this time around, they put together two different nine-minute punk operas, which listen like medleys since each section is really a separate song pastiche – “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming.” The former song opens with the dramatic stop-start riffs of “1. Jesus of Suburbia” before things slow down and they offer melancholy homage to the “II. City of the Damned” before crashing into a pounding celebration of American apathy in “III. I Don’t Care.”

Billy Joe Armstrong’s cynical pen is writing in blood on American Idiot, and the barbs come fast and furious throughout the 13 tracks. This is a band revitalized by its anger at American and world politics, at the blind consumerism of our endless rows of strip malls and loss of personal identity due to one broken home after another. From the aching isolation of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (“my shadow is the only one who walks beside me”) to the yearning stadium ballad of “Are We The Waiting,” this is Green Day at their finest.

Later in the disc, they offer a meld of lightly strummed acoustic guitar with their trademark wall of distortion fuzz on “Give Me Novacaine” and a classic three-chord Ramones-esque anthem in “She’s A Rebel.”

This is a band of punk kids who have grown up, but in doing so, have not forgotten the ferocious melding of harmony and lyrical bite that shot them to the top in the first place. Their teeth have only gotten sharper. This is one of the best albums of the year.


Duran DuranDuran Duran
Astronaut
(Epic)
   


"The time has come/the music’s between us” Simon LeBon sings at the start of Duran Duran’s first album with all of its original members in almost 20 years.

And if LeBon’s vocals sound just a tad thinner these days, the band is clearly reveling in its re-launch. The music is still between them.

From the bombastic celebration of the opening single “(Reach Up For The) Sunrise” through the cheeky innuendoes of “Bedroom Toys” to the disco-bass and falsetto “do-do-do”s of “Taste the Summer,” Astronaut is a non-stop party of an album.

There are nods at the sonic experimentation of their past in the languorous Notorious-era style strains of “Chains” and “Still Breathing” and a jazzy smoothness to “Point of No Return.” But it’s the smart, sharp, big vocal harmony choruses of “Astronaut,” ”Sunrise” and “Taste The Summer” that will send the children of the ‘80s into nostalgic nirvana, humming these tracks as well as looking up their old copies of Rio and Seven and the Ragged Tiger.

The fab five still got it. There’s nothing pretentious or overly arty here; this is Duran Duran setting out to write a dozen catchy pop tracks centered around the blurps and bleeps of Nick Rhodes’ ever-inventive keyboards, John Taylor’s sinuous bass and Andy Taylor’s funky guitars.

It’s a triumphant return.