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Gaga Is a Tramp, Kate Bush Gets Snowed In, R.E.M.’s Finest: CDs

The cover art of
The cover art of "50 Words for Snow" by Kate Bush. The album's suite of songs about sleet, snow, blizzards and ice was inspired by the 2010-2011 cold winter in the U.K. Source: Anti Records via Bloomberg

Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Kate Bush’s CD “50 Words for Snow” about bleak midwinter may send chills down your spine.

The signs weren’t good after a spate of iffy concept albums from female singer-songwriters including Tori Amos and Bjork. The festive CD idea also is wearing thin. Tony Bennett’s current “The Classic Christmas Album” follows Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night” and Bob Dylan in 2009.

Yet Bush pulls it off with style. The seven rapturous tracks “set against the background of falling snow” are as well done as the water-themed “The Ninth Wave” in 1985.

The album starts with Bush’s 12-year-old son Albert’s choirboy voice on “Snowflake.” Think of Robert Frost’s hedges freaked with blizzards or the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead”: This is magical stuff.

Only rarely does it go wrong, as with Elton John’s stentorian performance on “Snowed in on Wheeler Street.” The title track also is unconvincing -- an ambient mix with actor-comedian Stephen Fry reciting a list of fabricated words (Eskimos are said to have 50 terms for snow).

Bush had a 12-year musical pause until “Aerial” in 2005, and this album comes months after “Director’s Cut.” It’s good to have her back.

Rating: ****.

I never thought I’d be reviewing a Tony Bennett album (apart from the passing reference to his Christmas compilation above). Yet here we are, and it’s a positive write-up too.

“Duets II” is exactly what it says on the box: the second of a collection where the veteran swinger communes with more recent stars. This is a route that has been pursued by such 1950s legends as Frank Sinatra, and is guaranteed to lead to headlines featuring “elder statesman.”

Bennett, 85, delivers a well-judged set. Apart from the much-vaunted “Body and Soul” duet with the late Amy Winehouse, also on her “Lioness” posthumous album, there’s a hilarious version of “The Lady Is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga.

Rating: *** ½.

Michael Stipe announced the demise of his band R.E.M. in September, saying the art of partying is knowing when to leave. The Athens, Georgia, act nearly quit in 1997, when drummer Bill Berry retired. Still, they leave a long shadow.

“Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011” is the group’s pick of its best material.

“Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Finest Worksong,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People” and “Everybody Hurts” are all present and correct.

The main attraction for fans is the three new tracks such as the string-drenched “We All Go Back to Where We Belong.”

This two-disc compilation is also the first to cover both the Warner Brothers years and R.E.M.’s start on I.R.S. records, which produced the “Chronic Town” EP and “Murmur,” works for which the word “seminal” should have been invented.

Still, there are other compilations of these kings of indie rock and this one is effortlessly bettered as an introduction by CDs such as “Automatic for the People” and “Out of Time.”

Rating: ***.

Adele’s impressive “Live at the Albert Hall” DVD and CD should keep us going until she returns in 2012, doubtless with more Grammy success. It’s reassuring to report that the singer has been blogging that she’s recovering after a throat operation. Her new release is a solid **** rating.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Kate Bush is on Fish People/ANTI Records; R.E.M. is on Warner Bros.; Tony Bennett and Adele are both on Columbia. Prices start at $9.99 and download prices vary across services.

Information: http://www.katebush.com, http://remhq.com, http://tonybennett.com, http://www.adele.tv/.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Mark Beech in London at mbeech@bloomberg.net or http://twitter.com/Mark_Beech

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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