The debut album from Hamburg, Germany-based singer/songwriter duo BOY, 2011's Mutual Friends, is a melodic, often introspective album grounded in the group's poignant, emotionally resonant, female-centric point of view. Centered around the talents of Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass, BOY are ostensibly a folk-pop duo, but with backing from a handful of keyboardists, guitarists, and drummers -- including, on a few tracks, Phoenix's Thomas Hedlund -- they find a nice balance between the lightly experimental, catchy pop of Feist and the more twee-confessional style of Regina Spektor. What helps BOY rise above their similarly inclined female contemporaries is their knack for memorable pop songcraft that moves from the intimate, minor-key sound of cuts like "Railway" to more breezy, radio-ready tracks such as the cheekily titled '70s pop of "Oh Boy." With shimmering melodic lines and a pleasant, natural production approach, many of the songs on Mutual Friends find an immediate home in your ears that's as cozy as it is bittersweet. Part of this is due to Steiner and Glass' gift for writing lyrics that seem to capture what life is like for many women in their twenties. There is a recurring theme of newly discovered female freedom and sexual identity on the album that finds BOY thinking about such universally relatable "firsts" as getting an apartment ("This Is the Beginning"), working a day job ("Waitress"), falling in love ("Little Numbers"), and leaving home ("Drive Darling"). In the last example, Steiner sings "The trunk is filled with records and books and chairs and clothes/I'm smiling on the surface/I'm scared as hell below," and, later, "Good morning freedom, good night lullabies." Whether saying goodbye to a lover, or a parent, or perhaps even falling in love with each other, this BOY is forever on the cusp of becoming a woman.
Philadelphia-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Christina Perri found herself bearing the complex weight of a surprise platinum-selling hit in 2010 with the bare-bones break-up ballad “Jar of Hearts.” Her performance of the track on the Fox show "So You Think You Can Dance" landed her a contract with Atlantic Records, and with that, the pressures of eking out a quality, full-length debut in time to capitalize on her overnight success (listeners who picked up the rushed, 2010 Ocean Way Sessions EP will find most of the cuts here in attendance). Luckily, the tracks that make up Lovestrong, are cut from the same cloth as her signature hit. Songs like “Bluebird,” “Arms,” “Sad Song,” and “Black + Blue,” the latter of which feels like an update on events post-“Jar of Hearts,” find Perri in her comfort zone, trading barbs with past lovers over melodies spawned from countless hours listening to Brandi Carlile's “The Story,” Radiohead's “Creep,” and Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” It’s a formula she rarely deviates from, and at 15 cuts, the endless soul searching and constant barrage of wine glass-gazing, post-relationship, magnetic poetry can get a bit thin, but her pleasant, even-handed voice and gifts for using familiar melodies in new and surprising ways (witness the countless YouTube mash-ups of "Jar of Hearts" and Beyonce's "Halo") helps to keep Lovestrong from sinking itself, no matter how much its author wishes for the cold comfort of deep waters.
Singer/songwriter Jack Johnson writes songs that just feel good, sticking to an equation that combines his warm, relaxed voice with an acoustic guitar. That cozy formula made him a favorite among American college crowds, so it's no surprise that Johnson sticks with what he does best for his third album, In Between Dreams. Producer Mario Caldato, Jr. is back again, touching up Johnson's summery backdrop for another playful set of songs. The genre-blending charm and sweetness that fueled Brushfire Fairytales and On and On hasn't changed that much, but does it really have to? Johnson, alongside drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski, makes safe records. While there isn't anything wrong with that, taking a few more risks sonically and lyrically wouldn't work against him. Tender moments such as "If I Could" and "No Other Way" showcase a more reserved side on In Between Dreams. Other highlights include the lullaby-like "Breakdown" and the bossa nova rhythms of "Do You Remember." Whether he's singing about being in love -- which he does quite well on "Better Together" and "Banana Pancakes" -- or reflecting on its hardships, Johnson's laid-back approach is his biggest strength. In Between Dreams is a bit brighter and more upbeat, but his song remains the same.
MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi
Phillip Phillips' victorious run on American Idol included an abundance of R&B, as the young Georgia vocalist covered tunes by everyone from James Brown to Usher, amid some pop/rock classics. But even then, he displayed a vocal style closer to a cross between Chris Martin and Dave Matthews, and it's that amalgam that he explores on his debut album. Tracks like "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Hold On" have all the grandeur of Coldplay times ten, while the combination of acoustic axes and anthemic touches on other tracks underlines a Mumford & Sons influence. The disco-tinged "Get Up Get Down" nods to Phillips' funkier side, but for the most part, we hear him trading groove-based moves for grand drama and panoramic pop.
RCA\Legacy's 16 Biggest Hits collects (you guessed it) 16 classic cuts from the legendary singer/songwriter, including "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and "Annie's Song." Notable omissions such as "Calypso," "Grandma's Feather Bed," and "Perhaps Love" keep this skimpy overview from providing any real cultural impact, but there is enough here to recommended it if it arrives as the result of charity.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Greatest Hits 1970-2002 is a nearly flawless double-disc set commemorating Elton John's three-decade career. Disc one features what may arguably be John's most essential work: Seeing songs such as "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Candle in the Wind," and "Bennie and the Jets" -- not to mention "Your Song," "Rocket Man," and "Tiny Dancer" -- lined up back to back reaffirms just how diverse, and yet universal, his songwriting talent is. Disc two finds this talent maturing gracefully into the '80s, '90s, and beyond, touching on pop gems like "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "I'm Still Standing," and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" as well as his Lion King classic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and the Aida duet "Written in the Stars" with LeAnn Rimes. The collection also finds room for the highlights of his most recent albums, including Made in England's "Believe" and "Blessed," The Big Picture's "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," and Songs from the West Coast's "This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore." For most casual fans, Greatest Hits 1970-2002 will replace the need for collections such as Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, and Greatest Hits, Vol. 3, although these collections are still worthwhile as of-their-time retrospectives of John's work.
Heather Phares, Rovi
Neil Diamond's five-decade career as a singer, songwriter, and performer has certainly been a successful one by any standard. He’s sold well over 115 million records worldwide to date and has had eight number one singles ("Cracklin Rosie," "Song Sung Blue," "Desiree," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "Love on the Rocks," "America," "Yesterday's Songs," and "Heartlight"), and if he hasn't always generated the kind of critical respect he probably deserves, he’s been a steady and dependable artist who has managed to keep his large core audience happy. This 23-track set surveys the whole of Diamond's recording career, collecting his key and signature sides, beginning with his first hits for Bang Records in the mid-'60s through his commercial peak for Uni/MCA between 1968 and 1972, cuts from 1980’s The Jazz Singer (a soundtrack album that went platinum five times over on Capitol Records), and ending with tracks from Diamond's two Rick Rubin-produced albums, 2005’s 12 Songs and 2008’s Home Before Dark, on Columbia Records. Amazingly, this is the first multi-label single-disc collection of Diamond's signature songs like “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “I Am...I Said,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “I’m a Believer,” “Holly Holy,” “Solitary Man,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” his hit duet with Barbra Streisand “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and many others. The end result is the perfect career-spanning single-disc introduction to this iconic singer and songwriter.
Steve Leggett, Rovi
Bon Iver is the work of Justin Vernon. He isolated himself in a remote cabin in Wisconsin for almost four months, writing, and recording the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago, his haunting debut album. A few parts (horns, drums, and backing vocals) were added in a North Carolina studio, but for the majority of the time it's just Vernon, his utterly disarming voice, and his enchanting songs. The voice is the first thing you notice. Vernon's falsetto soars like a hawk and when he adds harmonies and massed backing vocals, it can truly be breathtaking. "The Wolves (Acts I & II)" truly shows what Vernon can do as he croons, swoops, and cajoles his way through an erratic and enchanting melody like Marvin Gaye after a couple trips to the backyard still. "Skinny Love" shows more of his range as he climbs down from the heights of falsetto and shouts out the angry and heartachey words quite convincingly. Framing his voice are suitably subdued arrangements built around acoustic guitars and filled out with subtle electric guitars, the occasional light drums, and slide guitar. Vernon has a steady grasp of dynamics too; the ebb and flow of "Creature Fear" is powerfully dramatic and when the chorus hits it's hard not to be swept away by the flood of tattered emotion. Almost every song has a moment where the emotion peaks and hearts begin to weaken and bend: the beauty of that voice is what pulls you through every time. For Emma captures the sound of broken and quiet isolation, wraps it in a beautiful package, and delivers it to your door with a beating, bruised heart. It's quite an achievement for a debut and the promise of greatness in the future is high. Oh, and because you have to mention it, Iron & Wine. Also, Little Wings. Most of all, though, Bon Iver.
Tim Sendra, Rovi
Like many of his peers, Cat Stevens made records that were identified by strong, memorable hit singles, but make no mistake: he made albums that were cohesive works onto themselves. For that reason, the very idea of a Cat Stevens greatest-hits collection may be troublesome to some fans, since they will only notice the missing album tracks, but Greatest Hits does its job exceptionally well. With the exception of "The Hurt," all of his hits from the early '70s -- "Wild World," "Moon Shadow," "Peace Train," "Morning Has Broken," "Sitting," "Oh Very Young," "Another Saturday Night," "Ready," and "Two Fine People" -- are here, along with three other fine album tracks. In short, it is everything that casual fans need -- and even fans that find a favorite or two missing will be hard-pressed to deny that this is a solid introduction and a great listen.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Though Jim Croce produced a handful of hit singles before his death, one can nonetheless argue that Croce was and is a rather underrated songwriter. This is especially evident in listening to his album tracks, many of which are remarkably potent and arguably could have been hits themselves. The numerous double-disc collections that have been released echo this factor, but for casual fans who merely want the radio favorites, the single-disc Photographs & Memories will suffice. All of Croce's biggest singles are here, including "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," "Time in a Bottle," and "Operator," as well as overlooked album tracks such as "New York's Not My Home" and "Lover's Cross." This is far from a perfect compilation; the album barely clocks in over 40 minutes, leaving time for numerous tracks that could have easily been added onto the same disc during the record's move from vinyl to CD. Still, it's hard to argue with what's here. While Croce's more devoted followers would prefer the double-disc 50th Anniversary Collection, casual listeners merely in search of Croce's well-known songs would be best suited with Photographs & Memories.
Barry Weber, Rovi
Carole King brought the fledgling singer/songwriter phenomenon to the masses with Tapestry, one of the most successful albums in pop music history. A remarkably expressive and intimate record, it's a work of consummate craftsmanship. Always a superior pop composer, King reaches even greater heights as a performer; new songs like the hits "It's Too Late" and "I Feel the Earth Move" rank solidly with past glories, while songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" take on added resonance when delivered in her own warm, compelling voice. With its reliance on pianos and gentle drumming, Tapestry is a light and airy work on its surface, occasionally skirting the boundaries of jazz, but it's also an intensely emotional record, the songs confessional and direct; in its time it connected with listeners like few records before it, and it remains an illuminating experience decades later.
Jason Ankeny, Rovi
Paul Simon's dazzling mix of American roots music, South African pop and highly personal songcraft instantly became one of the key albums of the 1980s and is now internationally considered among the greatest of all time. The zydeco rush of "Boy in the Bubble" and the autobiographical title track both offer musical comfort to confusing, sometimes deadly, modern landscapes, while the transcendent "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" brings magical realism to gritty urban streets. This 25th Anniversary Edition includes a bonus disc of choice live cuts and demos, while the physical edition features a well-regarded feature documentary that surveys the controversy surrounding the project, which was partially recorded in a South Africa still under apartheid. The end result? The South African musicians involved (including Ladysmith Black Mambazo) went from holding "working jobs" to earning a living as internationally celebrated musical stars, while Paul Simon was honored in South Africa by the post-apartheid government. The arguments are over and the music has endured.
-- Nick Dedina, Google Play
Precocious Brit Florence Welch fired a bullet into the head of the U.K. music scene in 2008 with the single "Kiss with a Fist," a punk-infused, perfectly juvenile summer anthem that had critics wiping the names Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Kate Nash from their vocabularies and replacing them with Florence + the Machine. While the comparisons were apt at the time, "Kiss with a Fist" turned out to be a red herring in the wake of the release of Lungs, one of the most musically mature and emotionally mesmerizing albums of 2009. With an arsenal of weaponry that included the daring musicality of Kate Bush, the fearless delivery of Sinéad O'Connor, and the dark, unhinged vulnerability of Fiona Apple, the London native crafted a debut that not only lived up to the machine-gun spray of buzz that heralded her arrival, but easily surpassed it. Like Kate Bush, Welch has little interest (for the most part) in traditional pop structures, and her songs are at their best when they see something sparkle in the woods and veer off of the main trail in pursuit. "Kiss with a Fist," as good as it is, pales in comparison to standout cuts like "Dog Days Are Over," "Hurricane Drunk," "Drumming Song," "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)," and "Cosmic Love," all of which are anchored to the earth by Welch's knockout voice, a truly impressive and intuitive trio of producers, and a backing band that sounds as intimate with the material as its creator. [Lungs was also released in a Deluxe Edition that included Lungs: The B-Sides, a bonus disc featuring studio tracks like “Swimming,” “Falling,” and “Heavy in Your Arms,” the latter of which appeared on the soundtrack for Twilight Saga: Eclipse, as well as live cuts (“You've Got the Dirtee Love"), demos (“Ghosts”), and remixes (the "Yeasayer Remix" of “Dog Days Are Over").]
Part of the beauty of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the intimate, backwoods feel of the recording and the simplicity of Justin Vernon's soaring, open wound of a voice with only minimal musical backing to distract from its impact. After a couple years in which his life was turned upside down thanks to the success of For Emma, Vernon’s second album is quite different. Where For Emma was stripped down and intimate, Bon Iver is packed with guest musicians, horn sections, strings, and extra vocalists. Within the expanded arrangements, there are still moments of tender beauty: the relatively restrained "Wash.," which pits Vernon’s aching vocal orchestra against a jagged, repeating piano line (and only minimal strings and pedal steel); the first two-thirds of "Holocene," and the simple and affecting "Michicant."
Tim Sendra, Rovi