Staff Picks

Same Trailer Different Park

Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves could easily be contemporary country's next big thing. She's a sharp, detailed songwriter with a little bit of an edge, and while it's tempting to think of her as another coming of Taylor Swift, say, she's got the kind of relaxed sureness about what she's doing as a songwriter and performer that puts her closer to a Miranda Lambert. On her first nationally distributed album, Same Trailer Different Park, she definitely sounds more on the Lambert side of things, with a sparse, airy sound that lets her lyrics shine, and she'd as soon use a banjo in her arrangements as a snarling Stratocaster. From her debut single, the marvelous "Merry Go 'Round" (which is included here as the third track), Musgraves showed an intelligent, careful writing style that is as pointed as it is poignant, and even though the song seems to skewer small-town country life, it does it without malice or agenda, and is really more just telling it true than anything else, a trait that ought to be treasured in Nashville but usually isn't. Nashville wants one to tell it true as long as that telling conforms to the template, which Musgraves isn't likely to do. "Merry Go 'Round" might be the best song here, but there are others that are nearly as good, like the lilting, wise opener, "Silver Lining," the implausible "Dandelion" (one wonders how she manages to make such a winning song out of such a metaphor, but she does), and the gutsy (and again, wise) "Follow Your Arrow," all of which feature clear-eyed observations, unintrusive but appropriate arrangements, and a certain flair for telling it like it is and making it sound like bedrock, obvious wisdom. Musgraves has a sense of humor, too, and all of these traits add up to make Same Trailer Different Park more than a collection of songs just aiming for the country charts.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Clarity

Zedd
After releasing huge hits on Steve Aoki's Dim Mak and Skrillex's OWSLA labels, 23-year-old Zedd unleashes an album's worth of peak-time dance-pop gold. Most of these 10 tracks mesh heartfelt ballads with huge, clubby sounds: Ellie Goulding candy-coats the electrostep monster "Fall Into the Sky," Bright Lights sounds silvery over the soaring progressive house number "Follow You Down," and the title track melds Foxes' breakup lyrics, a men's chorus and huge drum buildups into a cheery dancefloor sing-along. If you prefer more hypnotic vibes, "Stache" and "Shave It Up" are heavy-hitting floor-fillers. With a surprising wealth of ideas and melodies for such a young producer, don't be surprised if Zedd is soon giving Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia a run for their money.

Vivian Host, Google Play

Woman To Woman

Keyshia Cole
Keyshia's latest could've been subtitled He Done Her Wrong because nearly every song on this album deals with relationship issues, primarily the cheating kind. While she doesn't actually cover Shirley Brown's classic '70s ballad "Woman to Woman," she does recruit Ashanti, and the two portray women dating the same man. Other guest appearances come from Meek Mill on "Zero," and Lil Wayne on "Enough of No Love," both playing the dog in the affair. Robin Thicke gets a somewhat better role as he and Keyshia struggle to define their love on "Next Move." There's nothing as memorable as, say, "Love" from her 2005 debut, but Woman to Woman finds her in control of her element, even if she has to suffer a bit of pain and anguish for it.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Paramore

Paramore
The moment the gospel choir kicks in on ‘Ain’t It Fun’, urging some poor unfortunate to not go crying to their mother, signals that this is a Paramore album like no other. Following on from the breakup of the original line-up in 2010, singer Hayley Williams returns with a record that’s more commercial than ever, but unafraid to rock out the fuzzy guitars on tracks like ‘Now’ and ‘Part II’. Produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who has worked with Garbage, Air and Nine Inch Nails, the album marries a bright, upbeat hyperactivity with Williams’ often downbeat lyrics to create a winning, No Doubt-style fusion of poppy highlights and sure-fire stadium hits such as ‘Still Into You, Grow Up’ and ‘(One of Those) Crazy Girls’.


Dave Pollock, Google Play

good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick Lamar
Hip-hop debuts don't come much more "highly anticipated" than Kendrick Lamar's. A series of killer mixtapes displayed his talent for thought-provoking street lyrics delivered with an attention-grabbing flow, and then there was his membership in the Black Hippy crew with his brethren Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock all issuing solo releases that pleased the "true hip-hop" set, setting the stage for a massive fourth and final. Top it off with a pre-release "XXL Magazine" cover that he shared with his label boss and all-around legend Dr. Dre, and the "biggest debut since Illmatic" stuff starts to flow, but Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City would be a milestone even without the back-story, offering cool and compelling lyrics, great guests (Drake, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht) and attractive production (from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Tabu, and others). Here, Kendrick is living his life like status and cash were extra credit. It is what makes this kid so "good" as he navigates his "mad" city (Compton) with experience and wisdom beyond his years (25). He's shamelessly bold about the allure of the trap, contrasting the sickness of his city with the universal feeling of getting homesick, and carrying a Springsteen-sized love for the home team. Course, in his gang-ruled city, N.W.A. "was" the home team, but as the truly beautiful, steeped-in-soul, biographic key track "The Art of Peer Pressure" finds a reluctant young Kendrick and his friends feeding off the life-force of Young Jeezy's debut album, it's something Clash, Public Enemy, and all other rebel music fans can relate to. Still, when he realizes that hero Jeezy must have risen above the game -- because the real playas are damned and never show their faces -- it spawns a kind of elevated gangsta rap that's as pimp-connectable as the most vicious Eazy-E, and yet poignant enough to blow the dust off any cracked soul. Equally heavy is the cautionary tale of drank dubbed "Swimming Pools," yet that highlight is as hooky and hallucinatory as most Houston drank anthems, and breaks off into one of the chilling, cassette-quality interludes that connect the album, adding to the documentary or eavesdropping quality of it all. Soul children will experience déjà vu when "Poetic Justice" slides by with its Janet Jackson sample -- sounding like it came off his Aunt's VHS copy of the movie it's named after -- while the closing "Compton" is an anthem sure to make the Game jealous, featuring Dre in beast mode, acting pre-Chronic and pre-Death Row. This journey through the concrete jungle of Compton is worth taking because of the artistic richness within, plus the attraction of a whip-smart rapper flying high during his rookie season. Any hesitation about the horror of it all is quickly wiped away by Kendrick's mix of true talk, open heart, open mind, and extended hand. Add it all up and even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.

Living Things

Linkin Park
Linkin Park got pretty moody on 2010's A Thousand Suns, settling into a sulky electronica groove that pretty much screamed "growing pains" to anybody who listened closely. On its 2012 sequel, Living Things, Linkin Park attempts to graft guitars back onto their newly mature musical outlook, and the reintroduction of visceral force certainly helps give this album a pulse lacking on A Thousand Suns. It's hardly a step back to the old angst-ridden rap-rockers of the turn of the millennium, however. Admirably, Linkin Park revels in a near-middle-aged angst, letting their songs address adult concerns and giving their productions contours and texture; the additional noise isn't an expression of fury, it's used to enhance the drama. Generally, the songs feel sharper on Living Things -- there is definition to their structure, some of the choruses catch hold without too much effort -- but this album remains one of sustained mood, not individual moments. And in that regard, Living Things handily trumps A Thousand Suns: it doesn't stay still, it peaks and ebbs, flowing steadily between brooding and explosions of repressed rage, a fitting soundtrack for aging rap-rockers who are comfortable in their skin but restless at heart.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Bleach (Deluxe Edition)

Nirvana
This is one case where the legend really precedes the record itself. Cut for about 600 dollars in Jack Endino's studio over just a matter of days, this captures Nirvana at a formative stage, still indebted to the murk that became known as grunge, yet not quite finding their voice as songwriters. Which isn't to say that they were devoid of original material, since even at this stage Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft, particularly on the minor-key ballad "About a Girl" and the dense churn of "Blew." A few songs come close to that level, but that's more a triumph of sound than structure, as "Negative Creep" and "School" get by on attitude and churn, while the cover of "Love Buzz" winds up being one of the highlights because this gives a true menace to their sound, thanks to its menacing melody. The rest of it sinks into the sludge, as the group itself winds up succumbing to grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer. Bleach is more than a historical curiosity since it does have its share of great songs, but it isn't a lost classic -- it's a debut from a band that shows potential but haven't yet achieved it. [Sub Pop's 20th anniversary edition of Bleach offers a remastered version of the proper album -- good, but there's only so much sonic improvement that can be done for an album that was recorded for a few hundred dollars. The real news here is the addition of a complete Portland, OR, concert from February 9, 1990, an 11-song set that runs through the highlights of Bleach and adds "Dive" and "Been a Son," the Vaselines cover "Molly's Lips," and an early stab at "Sappy." That Nirvana sound forceful isn't a surprise, but they also sound surprisingly tight -- a little bit looser than they would sound within a year, but they're clearly marshaling their forces, gaining strength and skill. This concert may not be as epochal as the group's 1992 headlining appearance at Reading -- a CD/DVD set of which was released the same day as the Bleach anniversary edition -- but this is a terrific document of Nirvana's early days, proving they were a tremendous band before Dave Grohl came aboard.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

TP-2.com

R. Kelly
R. Kelly tames his ambitions a bit on TP-2.Com, assembling a simple sequel to his classic 12 Play album from 1993 rather than another epic venture like his double-disc, all-bases-covered R. album from 1998. The straightforwardness is somewhat of a welcome endeavor. As breathtaking as had been R. -- an album that straddled the huge gap between the sort of radio pop associated with Celine Dion as well as the street rap of Jay-Z and Nas -- it also seemed too overblown at times, as if Kelly had something to prove during an era of double-disc epic rap albums. So to see him return to the simple singles approach of 12 Play is refreshing, particularly since he has plenty of singles to work with here, just as he had with TP-1. Kelly furthermore unleashes his singles -- "I Wish," a mass-appeal vocal pop number with an urban edge; "Fiesta," a Latin Invasion cash-in that aims for the dancefloor; and "Feelin' on Yo Booty," a whispery come-on for all the weak-kneed ladies and some of the mindful ones too -- with tailor-made remixes to ensure himself broad airplay. Only one of those remixes is here though, the "I Wish" one, so take heed. There's no Jay-Z-featuring remix of "Fiesta" and no up-tempo one of "Feelin' on Yo Booty," yet TP-2.Com is a strong album nonetheless, three steps ahead of practically every other non-rap urban album from 2000. It does seem like Kelly is coasting a bit here at times, though, particularly when you hold TP-2.Com up against its massive predecessor, but even when R's lounging, he's generally ahead of the pack.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Night Visions

Imagine Dragons
Even though Night Visions has several repackaged tunes from Imagine Dragons' previous EPs, including the instantly appealing breakthrough hit "It's Time," the band's debut LP is a confident, commercially savvy collection of energetic hooks, crunchy electro beats and glossy synthesizers. With sweeping choruses and booming bass, it's big-sounding party rock, but the savvy, kitchen-sink production of Alex da Kid makes other would-be singles like "Bleeding Out" and "Tiptoe" as interesting as they are overwhelming. Even though under all the layers there are occasionally pockets of pure cheese ("With the beast inside, there's nowhere we can hide," Dan Reynolds sings on "Demons"), the scope of the band's full-length debut leaves a big impression.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Born To Die

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey's debut Born To Die was confounding indie critics long before its release, simply by being unapologetically pop. Lead single "Video Games" set up an intriguing, troublesome character—a passive, objectified girlfriend with outsized romantic daydreams and facile notions of "old Hollywood" glamour and noir—but Del Rey's drawling delivery sold it. That song's persona, its sedative languor and sweeping strings inform much of Born to Die's ballads, but so do moody hip-hop beats and distorted background shouts that recall, among other things, Kanye West's "Runaway." Better still are the more sprightly and playfully knowing pop moments of "Off to the Races, "Diet Mountain Dew," "Radio" and "National Anthem," where Del Rey almost breaks into a rap cadence. Of course Lana Del Rey is a put-on, but it's not an unpromising act.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Crash

Dave Matthews Band

Bangarang

Skrillex
Nominated for five Grammy Awards, shortlisted for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 poll, and courted by everyone from Chicago producer Kaskade to metal icons Korn, former From First to Last frontman Sonny Moore's transition from post-hardcore vocalist to dubstep producer couldn't have realistically gone any smoother. However, despite his unprecedented success, there's still a question as to whether he can apply his now trademark, demonic, wobble bass drops and thumping syncopated beats to a whole album. Named after the battle cry of the lost boys in Steven Spielberg's "Hook", his fourth consecutive EP Bangarang (also his first Top 40 entry in both the U.K. and U.S.) suggests he'll have to be on his game on the forthcoming full-length Voltage if he's to avoid an Emperor's New Clothes scenario. While the bombastic Wall of Sound displayed on 2010's Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites initially provided a unique take on the U.K. dubstep genre, Skrillex's lack of progression means there's a distinct sense of déjà vu among its seven tracks, particularly on the relentless, scattershot bleeps, chopped-up vocal hooks, and repetitive loops of opener "Right In" and the rap-metal fusion of "Kyoto." Even when he does think outside the box -- as on "Right on Time," a percussive, hard house collaboration with 12th Planet and Kill the Noise which eventually builds into a feverish slice of happy hardcore, and "The Devil's Den," a chaotic hook-up with Wolfgang Gartner which takes in everything from old-school rave to ska to techno -- the results are more headache-inducing than thrilling. There are a few more encouraging signs, such as the Doors-featuring "Breakin' a Sweat," which combines proggy guitar hooks, psychedelic organ chords, and Jim Morrison samples with a snarling, Prodigy-esque vocal and a filthy slab of dub bass to produce one of the year's most unexpectedly successful partnerships, and the multi-layered trance of closer "Summit," given an ethereal sheen thanks to Ellie Goulding's lilting tones, both of which suggest Skrillex should utilize his melodic leanings more often. But overall, Bangarang is a disappointingly formulaic affair which hints for the first time that the wheels may soon slowly begin to fall off.

Food & Liquor

Lupe Fiasco
A few years in the making, Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor follows a fruitless association with Epic (as a member of da Pak), an aborted solo deal with Arista (which yielded one promo single), a handful of guest appearances (tha Rayne's "Kiss Me," Kanye West's "Touch the Sky"), and a leak of an unfinished version of the album that set the official release back to September 2006. Still only 25 years old, Fiasco -- a Chicagoan of Islamic faith who owns a number of black belts -- sounds wise beyond his age, rarely raises his voice, projects different emotions with slight inflections, and is confident enough to openly admit his inspirations while building on them. It Was Written is his touchstone, and there are traces of numerous MCs in his rhymes, from Intelligent Hoodlum and Ed O.G. to Nas and Jay-Z. Pharrell (aka Skate Board P) might've considered suffocating himself out of envy with his Bathing Ape sweatshirt when he first heard the album's lead single, "Kick, Push," dubbed a skate-rap classic well before Food and Liquor hit shelves. Like nothing else in the mainstream or underground, its subject matter -- skater boy meets skater girl -- and appealing early-'90s throwback production finally broke the doors down for Fiasco's solo career. Wisely enough, Fiasco doesn't turn the skating thing into a gimmick and excels at spinning varying narratives over a mostly strong set of productions from 1st & 15th affiliates Soundtrakk and Prolyfic, as well as the Neptunes, West, Needlz, and Mike Shinoda. There are strings, smeary synthesized textures, and dramatic keyboard vamps galore -- templates that befit heartbreaking tales like "He Say She Say" and casually deep-thinking reflections like "Hurt Me Soul," where the MC confronts some of his conflicting emotions: "I had a ghetto boy boppa/Jay-Z boycott/'Cause he said that he never prayed to God, he prayed to Gotti/I'm thinking golly, God, guard me from the ungodly/But by my 30th watchin' of Streets Is Watching, I was back to givin' props again/And that was botherin'/'Bout as comfortable as a untouchable touching you." Deserving of as much consideration as the other high-profile debuts of the past few years, up to and including The College Dropout, Food and Liquor just might be the steadiest and most compelling rap album of 2006.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Uncaged

Zac Brown Band

The Evolution Of Robin Thicke

Robin Thicke
The story goes that the very happening Pharrell Williams asked music mogul and Interscope president Jimmy Iovine about his plans for Robin Thicke and then quickly snatched the artist up for his Star Trak imprint. Pharrell's enthusiasm for Thicke -- suave son of squeaky-clean celebrities Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring -- suggests he's one of the few who purchased his Interscope debut, 2002's Cherry Blue Skies, which was relaunched a year later as Beautiful World before fading into obscurity. While Thicke returned to his successful career as a songwriter and producer -- Christina Aguilera and Usher are just two of his many clients -- a cult formed around his debut. In 2005, there was both the Star Trak announcement and Lil Wayne's reinterpretation of Beautiful World's "Oh Shooter" for his 2005 release Tha Carter, Vol. 2, but the promised Thicke album that would reap the benefits was delayed, then delayed some more, and the cult got worried. Finally landing almost a year after originally promised, The Evolution of Robin Thicke is flawed with too much softness upfront, a lazy flow that takes some getting used to, and a downright awful track called "Cocaine," where style trumps substance, something that nearly happens the whole album through. Still, none of this means Thicke's sophomore effort shouldn't be embraced by those who appreciate his slightly eccentric take on slick blue-eyed neo-soul, because he's still mostly Timberlake for the skeptical set, or Prince for those who pine for the Purple One's over-stylized side project, the Family. Like old-school Prince, Thicke replaces every "you" with a "U," every "for" with a "4," and peppers his dreamy, sensual seduction numbers with brash and horny stingers. The bossa nova noir "Teach U a Lesson" feels comfortable and safe before Thicke's professor character explains how his student can "earn some extra credit," while "All Night Long" with Lil Wayne escalates from "All night long I wait 4 your lovin' babe" to "All night long I wait 2 tear U 2 pieces." Hardcore Southern baller Lil Wayne's two appearances -- the other being the return of his great "Shooter" -- are just one of the oddball genre-jumps the mostly neo-soul album makes, with Latin congas spicing up "Everything I Can't Have" while fingersnaps and jazzy arrangements play a big role in the sophisticated "Complicated." Over-indulgence and whims are all over the album, but perfectly polished pop tracks like "Wanna Love U Girl" and the surprisingly straightforward, empowerment-minded ballad "Can U Believe" succeed without any quirks. There isn't anything as instantly gripping as his debut single, "When I Get You Alone," and this fascinating effort just isn't tight enough to be called a classic, but with a little editing, rearranging, and forgiveness, his rabid following can sure love it like one.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Rock N Roll Jesus

Kid Rock
On Rock N Roll Jesus, Kid Rock's his music is so cluttered with comforting clichés, it plays like music for a theme restaurant, and his words fall flat. Splashy and silly though it may be, the music gets the basic sound right, even if it's way too polished and precise. The most shocking and notable thing about Rock N Roll Jesus: he's lost all of his verbal facility, to the point where he can no longer tell a dirty joke. It's as if by leaving rap behind, he's also discarded any claims at being clever.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

B'Day (Bonus Tracks)

Beyoncé
At least one tactic or event preceding the release of Beyoncé's second solo album inspired a bemused three-syllable exclamation from anyone who was paying attention. The lead single, the late-'70s funk-inspired "Deja Vu," had the audacity to not be as monstrous as "Crazy in Love" -- its stay at the top of the charts was relatively brief, so clearly there was evidence of some drop-off there. This was quickly followed by "Ring the Alarm," an angered, atonal, and out-of-character song with an accompanying video that invited all kinds of perplexed analysis, along with debate on whether Beyoncé was being autobiographical or, as the singer claimed, channeling her Dreamgirls character. All of this gave the haters plenty of ammo when anything less than 100-percent polite, ladylike, and expected was bound to do the trick. Add to this an album title that can be pronounced just like "bidet," along with the advertisement that the album's ten songs were whipped up in two weeks, and you have yourself a career-killing train wreck. B'day isn't even close to that.

While Beyoncé does sound like she's in a bit of a hurry throughout the album, and there are no songs with the smooth elegance of "Me, Myself and I" or "Be with You," it is lean in a beneficial way, propelled by just as many highlights as the overlong Dangerously in Love. Two collaborations with Rich Harrison swagger and preen: "Been locked up in the house way too long/It's time to get it, 'cause once again he's out doing wrong" (the blaring/marching "Freakum Dress"); "Don't give me no lip, let mama do it all" (the spectacularly layered "Suga Mama"). The Neptunes assist on "Green Light," an ambitious, fleet-footed number that continually switches tempos and sounds, and "Kitty Kat," a deceptively sweet, rainbow-colored track -- where what sounds like purrs are more like claws-out dismissals -- either could've been pulled from one of the first three Kelis albums. And even with an entirely bonkers line like "I can do for you what Marvin did for the people," "Upgrade U" is the most potent track on the album, a low-slung Cameron Wallace production where Beyoncé wears "and" buys the pants while making her proposition sound more like empowerment than emasculation. If the circus surrounding this whole thing -- which could take up to ten pages to document -- was an elaborate ploy to transform Beyoncé into an underdog, there really is some kind of genius at play, but it's extremely unlikely that anyone in her camp could've predicted that the expectations and reactions would be less rational than "any" of Beyoncé's decisions and actions. There is nothing desperate or weak about this album. [This edition contains a bonus track "Check on It."]

Greatest Hits

Boston
Since Tom Scholz is such a slow worker, there were only four Boston albums between the group's 1976 debut and this Greatest Hits collection in 1997. That may mean that there isn't much music to compile, as the reliance on their biggest-selling album, Boston, suggests, but that doesn't matter for most casual fans, since Greatest Hits gathers all of their best songs, from "More Than a Feeling" to "Amanda," on one compact disc. For the collector, the record isn't quite as appealing, even if it contains three new songs as bait. These three songs simply don't deliver the melodic punch or guitar crunch that distinguishes the group's best work. It's nice to hear original vocalist Brad Delp on "Higher Power," but "Tell Me" is slight, and an instrumental version of "The Star Spangled Banner" is nearly an insult. So, for the devoted, Greatest Hits is a mixed bag, but for less dedicated listeners, it may be all the Boston they need.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Elephant

The White Stripes
White Blood Cells may have been a reaction to the amount of fame the White Stripes had received up to the point of its release, but, paradoxically, it made full-fledged rock stars out of Jack and Meg White and sold over half a million copies in the process. Despite the White Stripes' ambivalence, fame nevertheless seems to suit them: They just become more accomplished as the attention paid to them increases. Elephant captures this contradiction within the Stripes and their music; it's the first album they've recorded for a major label, and it sounds even more pissed-off, paranoid, and stunning than its predecessor. Darker and more difficult than White Blood Cells, the album offers nothing as immediately crowd-pleasing or sweet as "Fell in Love With a Girl" or "We're Going to Be Friends," but it's more consistent, exploring disillusionment and rejection with razor-sharp focus. Chip-on-the-shoulder anthems like the breathtaking opener, "Seven Nation Army," which is driven by Meg White's explosively minimal drumming, and "The Hardest Button to Button," in which Jack White snarls "Now we're a family!" -- one of the best oblique threats since Black Francis sneered "It's educational!" all those years ago -- deliver some of the fiercest blues-punk of the White Stripes' career. "There's No Home for You Here" sets a girl's walking papers to a melody reminiscent of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (though the result is more sequel than rehash), driving the point home with a wall of layered, Queen-ly harmonies and piercing guitars, while the inspired version of "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" goes from plaintive to angry in just over a minute, though the charging guitars at the end sound perversely triumphant. At its bruised heart, Elephant portrays love as a power struggle, with chivalry and innocence usually losing out to the power of seduction. "I Want to Be the Boy" tries, unsuccessfully, to charm a girl's mother; "You've Got Her in Your Pocket," a deceptively gentle ballad, reveals the darker side of the Stripes' vulnerability, blurring the line between caring for someone and owning them with some fittingly fluid songwriting.

The battle for control reaches a fever pitch on the "Fell in Love With a Girl"-esque "Hypnotize," which suggests some slightly underhanded ways of winning a girl over before settling for just holding her hand, and on the show-stopping "Ball and Biscuit," seven flat-out seductive minutes of preening, boasting, and amazing guitar prowess that ranks as one the band's most traditionally bluesy (not to mention sexy) songs. Interestingly, Meg's star turn, "In the Cold, Cold Night," is the closest Elephant comes to a truce in this struggle, her kitten-ish voice balancing the song's slinky words and music. While the album is often dark, it's never despairing; moments of wry humor pop up throughout, particularly toward the end. "Little Acorns" begins with a sound clip of Detroit newscaster Mort Crim's Second Thoughts radio show, adding an authentic, if unusual, Motor City feel. It also suggests that Jack White is one of the few vocalists who could make a lyric like "Be like the squirrel" sound cool and even inspiring. Likewise, the showy "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" -- on which White resembles a garage rock snake-oil salesman -- is probably the only song featuring the word "acetaminophen" in its chorus. "It's True That We Love One Another," which features vocals from Holly Golightly as well as Meg White, continues the Stripes' tradition of closing their albums on a lighthearted note. Almost as much fun to analyze as it is to listen to, Elephant overflows with quality -- it's full of tight songwriting, sharp, witty lyrics, and judiciously used basses and tumbling keyboard melodies that enhance the band's powerful simplicity (and the excellent "The Air Near My Fingers" features all of these). Crucially, the White Stripes know the difference between fame and success; while they may not be entirely comfortable with their fame, they've succeeded at mixing blues, punk, and garage rock in an electrifying and unique way ever since they were strictly a Detroit phenomenon. On these terms, Elephant is a phenomenal success.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Mary

Mary J. Blige
Perhaps it was inevitable that Mary J. Blige would mature, toning down the raunchier elements of her persona that have been evident since her debut, while repositioning herself as a classicist soul singer. Even so, the sheer classiness of Mary, her fourth album, may come as a bit of a surprise. Blige made a conscious effort to create an album that recalled the classic dawning days of quiet storm yet worked as a unified, cohesive album. That meant that the more overt hip-hop elements have been subdued in favor of '70s soul. There's still grit in the music, but it's been glossed over with a polished production, and she now favors sophisticated songs, including material from such writers as Stevie Wonder, Bacharach/David, Lauryn Hill, and Elton John/Bernie Taupin. Some of these writers were collaborators and others contributed songs outright, but the amazing thing about the end result belongs to nobody else but Blige. It's different, to be sure, but still her -- and it's a rewarding, engaging way to mature. Blige's voice is richer and her skills have deepened, and her new songs, while not as streetwise, are worthy of her talents. Consequently, Mary is a thoroughly winning album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Need You Now

Lady Antebellum

Can't Take Me Home

Pink

Settle

Disclosure

Black Sunday

Cypress Hill

Overexposed

Maroon 5
For Adam Levine, love and sex are wars, and he's a soldier who can't help but be wounded and tortured by all the gorgeous women he engages in battle. "Baby, there you go again making me love you," his falsetto chirps on Overexposed's opener "One More Night." Several songs later, on "Lucky Strike," the lady has Levine "so high—and then she dropped me." Even on the deceptively titled "Ladykiller," the singer warns, "She's in it just to win it/ Don't trust her for a minute." Musically speaking, Maroon 5 continue to bury their neo-U2 alt-rock roots in urban glitz and bounce—Hall & Oates meets Justin Timberlake, in other words. Then again, the soaring romance that is "Daylight" proves they're just as comfortable softening their sound for a modern adult-contemporary scene that was weaned on arena rock. – Justin Farrar, Google Play

-- Justin Farrar, Google Play

El Camino

The Black Keys
Picking up on the ‘60s soul undercurrent of Brothers, the Black Keys smartly capitalize on their 2010 breakthrough by plunging headfirst into retro-soul on El Camino. Savvy operators that they are, the Black Keys don’t opt for authenticity à la Sharon Jones or Eli “Paperboy” Reed: they bring Danger Mouse back into the fold, the producer adding texture and glitter to the duo’s clean, lean songwriting. Apart from “Little Black Submarines,” an acoustic number that crashes into Zeppelin heaviosity as it reaches its coda, every one of the 11 songs here clocks in under four minutes, adding up to a lean 38-minute rock & roll rush, an album that’s the polar opposite of the Black Keys’ previous collaboration with Danger Mouse, the hazy 2008 platter Attack & Release. That purposely drifted into detours, whereas El Camino never takes its eye off the main road: it barrels down the highway, a modern motor in its vintage body. Danger Mouse adds glam flair that doesn’t distract from the songs, all so sturdily built they easily accommodate the shellacked layers of cheap organs, fuzz guitars, talk boxes, backing girls, tambourines, foot stomps, and handclaps. Each element harks back to something from the past -- there are Motown beats and glam rock guitars -- but everything is fractured through a modern prism: the rhythms have swing, but they’re tight enough to illustrate the duo’s allegiance to hip-hop; the gleaming surfaces are postmodern collages, hinting at collective aural memories. All this blurring of eras is in the service of having a hell of a good time. More than any other Black Keys album, El Camino is an outright party, playing like a collection of 11 lost 45 singles, each one having a bigger beat or dirtier hook than the previous side. What’s being said doesn’t matter as much as how it’s said: El Camino is all trash and flash and it’s highly addictive.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Creed
Creed weren't just one of many two-album wonders of the post-grunge late '90s, they were the biggest of the two-album wonders, selling more records and crashing harder than any other their peers. All the while they produced unflappably earnest heavy rock -- music that sounded like Pearl Jam, only not nearly as much fun. They also traded on Pearl Jam's unfortunate tendency to place sheer emotion and sound over hooks, and since Creed weren't as powerful or interesting musically as the Seattle quartet, that meant that their albums could sound rather samey in the long haul. Nevertheless, their sincerity resonated among mainstream listeners irritated that Pearl Jam went weird after Vs., and with 2000s "With Arms Wide Open," they had a power ballad hit with universal appeal that helped break them through to an even wider audience than they had before. It, naturally, is the literal centerpiece of Creed's 2004 Greatest Hits, arriving in the middle of the 13-song album. Since it remains their biggest and best song, it's only appropriate that it has such a prominent position on this album, because a listen to the entire album reveals that the rest of their material hasn't aged all that well. Still, for those listeners who want to dig back to the halcyon year or two where Creed were one of the biggest bands in the land, Greatest Hits is the way to do it, since it has all of their charting hits, minus the minor radio hit cover of "Riders on the Storm" from the 2000 Doors tribute album Stoned Immaculate. It may not be timeless music, but Greatest Hits does gather all the noteworthy Creed tracks for those who care. [The initial pressings also contained a bonus DVD, containing all of Creed's music videos, along with some live performances. Unfortunately, the menu interface is not well designed -- it is only possible to play the videos individually, there is no "Play All" function.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Justified

Justin Timberlake
With his debut solo album, Justified, Justin Timberlake borrows from Michael Jackson, from the Thriller-era getup and poses to the sharply modernized spin on the classic Off the Wall sound. To be sure, the sound of the Neptunes productions which dominate Justified is the best thing about the album; they have a lush, sexy, stylish feel that is better, more romantic than most modern R&B. Timberlake is a technically skilled vocalist, with a smooth falsetto. The songs are pretty on the surface -- apart from some flop Timbaland productions (which he redeems with the slinky funk of "Right for Me"), the sound of Justified works well.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Carolina

Eric Church
Country music outlaw Eric Church blasted onto the scene in 2006 with his jaw-dropping debut effort, Sinners Like Me. The North Carolina native quickly earned a dedicated following and a reputation for putting on a killer live show. Carolina, the singer/songwriter's 2009 sophomore release, is as raw and real as they come out of Nashville -- where style is often passed

off as substance. Like Sinners Like Me, Carolina is a from-the-gut collection filled to the brim with traditionally rooted country music that is masterfully tempered with Southern baked rock. From the floor rattling fury of "Ain't Killed Me Yet" to the heart tugging honesty of "Those I've Loved" Church soars higher here than he did on his critically praised debut. The characters who live and breathe between the chords and melodies in Church's songs are as authentic as the well-worn frets on his acoustic guitar. The guy on the chugging "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," who claims Johnny Cash would have "whipped" the ass of those country posers who insist on name-checking the late "Man In Black" in their songs, bears a strong resemblance to Church himself. Loud guitars, gritty vocals, and more soul than a Sunday morning sermon best sums up Carolina.

Todd Sterling, Rovi

Lioness: Hidden Treasures

Amy Winehouse
Having always divided opinion with her controversial private life while ultimately possessing one of the greatest voices of her generation, Amy Winehouse's life came to a tragic end in the summer of 2011. Lioness: Hidden Treasures is an album that features previously unreleased material from the late singer, including a duet with rapper Nas on "Like Smoke" and a touching cover of Ruby & the Romantics' 1963 hit single "Our Day Will Come.", Rovi

An Awesome Wave

Alt-J

Enter The Wu-Tang

Wu-Tang Clan
Along with Dr. Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production -- courtesy of RZA -- mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.

Steve Huey, Rovi

King Animal

Soundgarden
More than any of their grunge peers, Soundgarden have always been a band about pure, musical muscle. While Nirvana appealed with punk bile, Pearl Jam with broad rock populism, Soundgarden crushed with a technical skill more closely derived from metal. The risk for their first album in 12 years, then, isn't that their approach will have gone out of style, but that the band will have fallen out of shape. Fortunately, Chris Cornell's fluid and caustic wail is remarkably unworn by age—and, as always, his sometimes obvious lyrics aren't as important as how he sings them—but every part of the band is equally crucial, from Kim Thayil's flaring and heavy guitar riffs to drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shephard's coursing rock grooves. For having "been away too long," King Animal finds Soundgarden still in impressive shape.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Rapture

Anita Baker
Though Anita Baker got some airplay out of The Songstress, that promising solo debut didn't bring her financial security. In fact, Baker was earning her living as a legal secretary in her native Detroit when she signed with Elektra in the mid-'80s. Elektra gave her a strong promotional push, and the equally superb Rapture became the megahit that The Songstress should have been. To its credit, Elektra made her a major star by focusing on Baker's strong point -- romantic but gospel-influenced R&B/pop ballads and "slow jams," sometimes with jazz overtones -- and letting her be true to herself. Rapture gave Baker one moving hit after another, including "Sweet Love," "Caught up in the Rapture," "Same Ole Love," and "No One in This World." Praising Baker in a 1986 interview, veteran R&B critic Steve Ivory asserted, "To me, singers like Anita Baker and Frankie Beverly define what R&B or soul music is all about." Indeed, Rapture's tremendous success made it clear that there was still a sizeable market for adult-oriented, more traditional R&B singing.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Amaryllis

Shinedown
With a trend toward the uplifting, Shinedown push their sound in an increasingly positive direction on their fourth album, Amaryllis. While the album still has the driving, hard rock backbone that the band has been building their post-grunge sound upon for years, there's something more anthemic about this effort, as if every song is an attempt to rouse listeners out of their seats, and to that end, it's largely successful. Though songs like "Adrenaline" and "Enemies" still have a good, hard edge to them, the sweeping arrangements of tracks like "Unity" and "I'm Not Alright" always seem to pull the album back into more inspirational waters. Even with this change of tone, the album is still classic Shinedown, and though this kind of triumphant mood will probably disappoint fans looking for something to cut loose and pump their fists to, with such positive overtones at work, at least it'll leave them feeling good about it.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Nothing's Shocking

Jane's Addiction
Although Jane's Addiction's 1987 self-titled debut was an intriguing release (few alternative bands at the time had the courage to mix modern rock, prog rock, and heavy metal together), it paled in comparison to their now classic major-label release one year later, Nothing's Shocking. Produced by Dave Jerden and Jane's Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell, the album was more focused and packed more of a sonic wallop than its predecessor; the fiery performances often create an amazing sense that it could all fall apart at any second, creating a fantastic musical tension. Such tracks as "Up the Beach," "Ocean Size," and one of alt-rock's greatest anthems, "Mountain Song," contain the spaciousness created by the band's two biggest influences, Led Zeppelin and the Cure. Elsewhere, "Ted, Just Admit It..." (about serial killer Ted Bundy) and the haunting yet gorgeous "Summertime Rolls" stretched to epic proportions, making great use of changing moods and dynamics (something most alt-rock bands of the time were oblivious to). An incredibly consistent and challenging album, other highlights included the rockers "Had a Dad" and "Pigs in Zen," the horn-driven "Idiots Rule," the jazz instrumental "Thank You Boys," and the up-tempo "Standing in the Shower...Thinking." Like most great bands, it was not a single member whose contribution was greater: Perry Farrell's unique voice and lyrics, Dave Navarro's guitar riffs and wailing leads, Eric Avery's sturdy basslines, and one of rock's greatest and most powerful drummers, Stephen Perkins. Nothing's Shocking is a must-have for lovers of cutting-edge, influential, and timeless hard rock.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg
As far as debut albums go, this eponymous release is a surprisingly accomplished effort from the Nottingham-born teenager Jake Bugg. Although he stares out from the album cover like a younger, long-lost cousin of the View or the Enemy, while those U.K. indie acts found their nourishment on a diet of the Jam, Oasis, and the Strokes, Bugg found time to explore pre-Beatles music from the likes of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. These influences -- combined with a folk sensibility and moments of delicate acoustic fingerpicking that betray a love for Bob Dylan and Donovan -- make for an accessible, pop-focused record that doesn’t attempt to chase innovation. Much of the material here was co-written, produced, and mixed by Snow Patrol and Reindeer Section collaborator Iain Archer. When Bugg and Archer combine on “Taste It” and “Trouble Town” -- two of the album’s stronger, more raucous tracks -- it’s as if you’re hearing what the La’s would have sounded like if John Power had been their dominant force, as opposed to Lee Mavers. It’s the intro to “Taste It” in particular that apes “Feelin’” -- the Liverpudlians’ final single -- while “Trouble Town” comes across as a rewrite of their cautionary “Doledrum” with its skiffle-fueled tales of unemployment benefits and missed payments. The comparatively positive and sprightly opener “Lightning Bolt” didn’t do Bugg any harm when it was featured just prior to the BBC’s live coverage of Usain Bolt’s Olympic 100m victory and was heard by a U.K. audience of 20 million people. Built around a three-chord shuffle and a bridge that Noel Gallagher would be proud of, it’s another example of a Bugg/Archer gem. While it’s the analog-sounding upbeat tracks such as these that impress, it’s the mid-paced, digitally polished ballads and resultant formulaic pacing that underwhelm. It’s safe to say that those searching for experimental music should most definitely look elsewhere. “Broken” -- co-written with former Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt -- takes Bugg into broad, “X-Factor does indie” territory, while “Country Song” tiptoes between James Blunt’s vocal quirks and John Denver’s suffocating pleasantry. Inoffensive and clean-cut as they are, both tracks signify a mid-album lull and sit awkwardly on a record that is littered with overt drug references and imagery from the street. To his credit, Bugg's too young by far to be a drug bore, and when he takes “a pill or maybe two” in “Seen It All” or is “high on a hash pipe of good intent” in “Simple as This,” it feels like social documentation rather than a misguided attempt at glamorizing their use. Elsewhere, Clifton -- the south Nottingham village that Bugg calls home -- gets what is possibly its first mention in song on the irresistible, Hollies-inspired “Two Fingers.” All in all, though Bugg’s debut may not share the wordy precociousness of Conor Oberst’s formative steps or the political astuteness of Willy Mason on Where the Humans Eat, it’s his sheer earnestness and rare gift for writing simple, hook-filled tunes that ultimately charm the listener.

James Wilkinson, Rovi

Two Eleven

Brandy
Brandy could have released another adult contemporary-oriented set, or linked with the dance-pop producers who have boosted many of her fellow artists. Instead, she made a modern R&B album. Even Two Eleven's most upbeat and commercial song, "Put It Down" -- a blocky, bass-heavy number featuring Chris Brown and production from Bangladesh and Sean Garrett -- was aimed more at urban radio than mainstream Top 40 stations. It became the singer's first Top Five R&B/Hip-Hop single in ten years, and it sticks out on an album dominated by aching ballads and grown slow jams. She took something of a risk by breaking from her norm and working with numerous songwriters and producers -- a large cast that includes Rico Love, the Bizness, MIDI Mafia, Warryn Campbell, Mario Winans, and Frank Ocean. It paid off. Much of what resulted teems with assurance and empowered, shot-calling sexuality. "Slower," produced by Switch and co-composed by Chris Brown, slips and slides with a dazzling backdrop. Brandy scuttles between relaxed and rapid modes to equally stimulating effect, following "Come here, let mama bring you up to speed" with "I know you wanna beat it up, but I'm sorry, that ain't really my thing." A piano ballad sheathed in synthetic tom rolls, gauzy guitar, and heavily treated background vocals, "Paint This House" carries some awkward and corny metaphorical/literal cross-ups but is too gorgeously arranged -- make that sculpted -- to be taken as anything other than an album high point. On the slow-motion "Do You Know What You Have," Brandy gets a booming, atmospheric beat from Mike Will, fresh from Juicy J's "Bandz a Make Her Dance." In a seductively challenging manner, the singer repeatedly asks, "Do you know what you got here?" That's a good question. Months after scores of music fans went bananas over an opportunistic resuscitation of a deceased peer's studio scraps, Brandy, a superior vocalist ignored or disregarded by many of those same people, released one of her best albums. She should not be taken for granted.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Wide Open Spaces

Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks spent the first half of the '90s toiling away on the independent bluegrass circuit, releasing three albums on small labels, before sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison decided to revamp their sound in 1995, adding Natalie Maines as their lead singer and, in the process, moving the group away from bluegrass and toward a major label with Sony/Columbia's revived Monument Records imprint. All of this seems like the blueprint for a big pop crossover move and, to be sure, their 1998 major-label debut Wide Open Spaces was a monumental success, selling over ten million copies and turning the group into superstars, but the remarkable thing about the album is that it's most decidedly not a sell-out, or even a consciously country-pop record. To be sure, there are pop melodies here, but this isn't a country-pop album in the vein of Shania Twain, a record that's big on style and glitz, designed for a mass audience. Instead, Wide Open Spaces pulls from several different sources -- the Chicks' Americana roots, to be sure, but also bits of the alt country from kd lang and Lyle Lovett, '70s soft rock (any album that features versions of songs by J.D. Souther and Bonnie Raitt surely fits this bill), even the female neo-folkies emerging on the adult alternative rock stations at the end of the decade. In other words, it hit a sweet spot, appealing to many different audiences because it was eclectic without being elitist but they also had a true star in Natalie Maines, whose powerful, bluesy voice gave these songs a compelling center. Maines was versatile, too, negotiating the twists and turns of these songs without a hitch, easily moving from the vulnerability of "You Were Mine" to the snarl of "Give It Up or Let Me Go." The same goes for the Dixie Chicks and Wide Open Spaces as a whole: they are as convincing on the sprightly opener "I Can Love You Better" or the bright, optimistic title song as they are on the breezy "There's Your Trouble" as they are on the honky tonk shuffle of "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" and the rocking swagger of "Let 'Er Rip." It's a remarkably wide range and it's effortlessly eclectic, with the Dixie Chicks bringing it all together with their attitude and understated musicality -- as debuts go (and this does count as a debut), they rarely get better than this.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Very Best Of Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack
It's quite easy to place Roberta Flack near the top of the pile of singer/songwriters who changed the course of pop music, not only soul music, during the '70s. She was fortunate enough to deliver the velvet-smooth ballad "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to an unsuspecting public, and followed it up with an onslaught of ballads that would keep her on the charts for the remainder of the decade. From start to finish, this greatest-hits compilation is the most comprehensive look at her finest moments available on record. From her legendary string of duets with Donny Hathaway to her duets with Peabo Bryson and Maxi Priest that kept her at the top of the charts through the '80s, they're all here. But it's not just the duets that made Flack such an outstanding performer, as her solo works also rate high in quality. Free of the filler and goofy remixes that can make other greatest-hits collections seem diluted, this is easily the best retrospective of her work available to date.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

St. Elsewhere

Gnarls Barkley

Hell On Heels

Pistol Annies
Relieving the pressure of delivering her eagerly awaited fourth album, Miranda Lambert formed the Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, two similarly minded singer/songwriters whose profile doesn’t come close to matching hers. Lambert may be the star, but she’s not the leader in Pistol Annies, who are a remarkably democratic supergroup, sharing leads and writing songs where the spotlight shifts from one singer to another. Often, the group’s spare, simple arrangements, acoustic underpinning, and wry wit recall the Dixie Chicks, but the Pistol Annies' sensibilities are more straightforward than the Chicks; they don’t bend genres or delve into bluegrass, and the focus remains on the song. And Hell on Heels, their quickly recorded and released 2011 debut appearing just months before Lambert's Four the Record, is filled with excellent songs, tunes that aren’t flashy but are deceptive, built on strong bones, and delivered with a clever flair. There’s a lightness to Hell on Heels that wasn’t apparent on Revolution - it’s clear that collaboration has liberated Lambert, she’s not having to deal with the expectations of a major artist, but rather gets to cut loose and have fun, something that winds up reaffirming her status as a major artist. She tosses off songs with casual confidence while introducing the larger world to two fine singer/songwriters in Monroe and Presley. Miranda’s career will certainly thrive, and Ashley and Angaleena may go on to their own success, but with any luck, Pistol Annies is not a one-off for the trio, but rather a regular gig: this is too much pure fun to not repeat.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes
Borrowing from ageless folk and classic rock (and nicking some of the best bits from prog and soft rock along the way), on their self-titled debut album Fleet Foxes don't just master the art of taking familiar influences and making them sound fresh again, they give a striking sense of who they are and what their world is like. Their song titles reference the Blue Ridge Mountains -- never mind that they're actually from Seattle -- but it's the ease and skill with which they mix and match British and American folk and rock from the far and not too distant past that makes the band's music so refreshing. While this mix could be contrived or indulgent, Fleet Foxes use restraint, structuring their flourishes into three- and four-minute pop songs full of chiming melodies and harmonies that sound like they've been summoned from centuries of traditional songs and are full of vivid, universal imagery: mountains, birds, family, death. Despite drawing from so many sources, there's a striking purity to Fleet Foxes' sound. Robin Pecknold's voice is warm and sweet, with just enough grit to make phrases like "premonition of my death" sound genuine, and the band's harmonies sound natural, and stunning, whether they're on their own or supported by acoustic guitars or the full, plugged-in band. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Meadowlarks" show just how much the Foxes do with the simplest elements of their music, but Fleet Foxes' best songs marry that purity with twists that open their sound much wider. As good as the Sun Giant EP was, Fleet Foxes saved many of their best songs for this album. "White Winter Hymnal" is remarkably beautiful, building from a vocal round into glorious jangle pop with big, booming drums that lend a sense of adventure as the spine-tingling melody lightens some of the lyrics' darkness ("Michael you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in summertime"). The suite-like "Ragged Wood" moves from a galloping beat to sparkling acoustic picking, then takes a trippy detour before returning to a more thoughtful version of its main theme. "Quiet Houses" and "He Doesn't Know Why"'s driving pianos show off the band's flair for drama. Dazzling songs like these are surrounded by a few songs that find the band leaning a little more heavily on its influences. "Your Protector" nods to Zeppelin's misty, mournful side, and "Blue Ridge Mountains" is the kind of earthy yet sophisticated song CSNY would have been proud to call their own. But, even when the songs aren't as brilliant as Fleet Foxes' highlights, the band still sounds alluring, as on the lush interlude "Heard Them Stirring." Throughout the album, the band sounds wise beyond its years, so it's not really that surprising that Fleet Foxes is such a satisfying, self-assured debut.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Goldenheart

Dawn Richard

Dusty in Memphis

Dusty Springfield
Sometimes memories distort or inflate the quality of recordings deemed legendary, but in the case of Dusty in Memphis, the years have only strengthened its reputation. The idea of taking England's reigning female soul queen to the home of the music she had mastered was an inspired one. The Jerry Wexler/Tom Dowd/Arif Mardin production and engineering team picked mostly perfect songs, and those that weren't so great were salvaged by Springfield's marvelous delivery and technique. This set has definitive numbers in "So Much Love," "Son of a Preacher Man," "Breakfast in Bed," "Just One Smile," "I Don't Want to Hear About It Anymore," and "Just a Little Lovin'" and three bonus tracks: an unreleased version of "What Do You Do When Love Dies," "Willie & Laura Mae Jones" and "That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)." It's truly a disc deserving of its classic status.

Ron Wynn, Rovi

Perfectly Imperfect

Elle Varner
As an NYU graduate and the daughter of music veterans, Elle Varner and her Perfectly Imperfect debut often outpaces her producers, Pop & Oak (known for Big Sean's "Marvin & Chardonnay" and Nicki Minaj's "Right by My Side"). The beats are slick enough—"Refill" opens with a fiddle, while "Only Want to Give It to You" lifts the drum beat from Biz Markie's "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz." But Varner's lyrics are unusually vivid, and her voice is memorably rough and grainy, yet expressive. "You're intoxicating my mind/ Feel like a conversational lush," she sings on "Refill," while on "So Fly" she talks about feeling inadequate about her body, singing, "I can't help being depressed when I look down at my chest." Varner's a promising songwriter, and with luck, Perfectly Imperfect is the first building block for a career worthy of her talent.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Pure BS (Deluxe Edition)

Blake Shelton
Blake Shelton's Pure BS was released in May of 2007 to widespread acclaim and fine sales. Later in 2007, keeping the iron hot, he released, "Home," a subsequent single written by no less than Michael Bublé, that didn't appear on the album; it took off with a bullet. A year later, after non-stop touring for almost the entire time, Shelton hasn't had the time to record a proper follow-up. He and Warner Nashville are trotting trot out another version of Pure BS called a "deluxe edition," that includes the single and a pair of Shelton-penned bonus cuts -- "Chances" and "I Can't Walk Away." Sorry to say that these two songs -- the former a no account ballad, the latter a sad attempt at an anthemic rocker -- add nothing to the fun, power, and romance on Pure BS; they're generic at best. If it weren't for "Home" being the new closer on the deluxe edition, these new songs would have marred an otherwise focused and very consistent effort. This was a bad idea all around. Sometimes less is more.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Toxicity

System Of A Down
System of a Down's 1998 debut was initially overlooked by the mainstream hard rock audience, as well as the specialized press. But heavy metal cognoscenti in both camps quickly realized that in their hands was a potentially crucial stepping stone for the future development of heavy metal. Sure enough, so challenging and groundbreaking were its contents that the album soared over most everyone's unsuspecting heads, its eventual gold sales status only achieved via Columbia Records' massive promotional muscle and nearly three years of intensive touring on the band's part. Consequently, early believers were pleasantly surprised when 2001's long awaited follow-up, Toxicity met with instant popular acceptance, skyrocketing up the charts toward multi-platinum success. Yet, for the most part, it also managed to retained SOAD's unorthodox signature sound: so-called "nu-metal" uniquely infused with remarkable originality, including angular riffs, jagged rhythms, and oblique lyrics splattered all over the place. Like its predecessor, Toxicity seems utterly chaotic upon first listen, but things quickly begin falling into place, thanks to a number of small refinements, not least of which is a more generous melody, obviously pre-meditated, but rarely overdone. In turn, this immediacy greatly improved the album's chances at radio -- case in point, first single "Chop Suey!," a track so potent not even September 11, nor mainstream radio's ensuing self-imposed, politically correct attempt at self-censorship, could tear from the airwaves (despite its none-too-discreet lyrics about suicide), the song's surprising success was reminiscent of another left-field hit from a decade earlier, Faith No More's "Epic" (hear its piano-led outro for proof). And sure enough, from the unexpected false starts of "Prison Song" to the relatively mellow conclusion, the band's heightened commercial sensibility continues to joust with their inherently quirky songwriting. The excellent title track, "Forest," and "Science" are among the most accessible standouts from an incredibly diverse set, the likes of which SOAD's inferior nu-metal peers could only hope to emulate. Lyrically, it's simply no contest. Whether tackling typical rock subject matter like drug abuse ("Needles") and groupies ("Psycho"), or embarking on inscrutable Dadaist gems like "Jet Pilot" and "Shimmy," co-songwriters Daron Malakian and Serj Tankain sound like are the bastard children of Frank Zappa and Slayer. And while sub-Rage Against the Machine political invective (unfairly attributed to their Armenian heritage) remains an integral part of the band's creative makeup (e.g. "Deer Dance," "Atwa"), Toxicity's approach is much more cautious in this regard than that of their incendiary debut. In conclusion, when a band takes this many left turns, you'd expect them to start going in circles sooner rather than later, but this is not the case with System of a Down. Hands down one of 2001's top metal releases, Toxicity may well prove to be a lasting heavy metal classic to boot.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Live

Erykah Badu
Conventional wisdom dictates that an artist should not release a live album as her second record, especially if it follows the debut by a matter of months. However, Erykah Badu is not a conventional artist and Live is not a conventional live album. While her debut, Baduizm, earned strong reviews and healthy sales, her concerts became equally popular and she became known as a powerhouse live performer. Live solidifies that reputation, delivering soulful, gritty versions of cuts from Baduizm, a few covers, and the spectacular new single, "Tyrone." Not only does it illustrate the depths of Badu's talents, but Live is as strong and captivating as Baduizm.

Leo Stanley, Rovi

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips
After the symphonic majesty of The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips return with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a sublime fusion of Bulletin's newfound emotional directness, the old-school playfulness of Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, and, more importantly, exciting new expressions of the group's sentimental, experimental sound. While the album isn't as immediately impressive as the equally brilliant and unfocused Soft Bulletin, it's more consistent, using a palette of rounded, surprisingly emotive basslines; squelchy analog synths; and manicured acoustic guitars to craft songs like "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21," a sleekly melancholy tale of robots developing emotions, and "In the Morning of the Magicians," an aptly named electronic art rock epic that sounds like a collaboration between the Moody Blues and Wendy Carlos. Paradoxically, the Lips use simpler arrangements to create more diverse sounds on Yoshimi, spanning the lush, psychedelic reveries of "It's Summertime"; the instrumental "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon"; the dubby "Are You a Hypnotist?"; and the barely organized chaos of "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2," which defeats the evil metal ones with ferocious drums, buzzing synths, and the razor sharp howl of the Boredoms' Yoshimi. Few bands can craft life-affirming songs about potentially depressing subjects (the passage of time, fighting for what you care about, good vs. evil) as the Flaming Lips, and on Yoshimi, they're at the top of their game. "Do You Realize??" is the standout, so immediately gorgeous that it's obvious that it's the single. It's also the most obviously influenced by The Soft Bulletin, but it's even catchier and sadder, sweetening such unavoidable truths like "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?" with chimes, clouds of strings, and angelic backing vocals. Yoshimi features some of the sharpest emotional peaks and valleys of any Lips album -- the superficially playful "Fight Test" is surprisingly bittersweet, while sad songs like "All We Have Is Now" and "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" are leavened by witty lyrics and production tricks. Funny, beautiful, and moving, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots finds the Flaming Lips continuing to grow and challenge themselves in not-so-obvious ways after delivering their obvious masterpiece.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Bionic

Christina Aguilera
Subtlety not being part of Christina Aguilera's vocabulary, she trades the retro-swing of Back to Basics for the future-pop of Bionic, receiving assists from a roster that reads like a who's who of progressive pop: M.I.A., Le Tigre, Peaches, and John Hill and Switch, known for their work with Santogold. But like the half-cyborg/half-diva illustration of the cover, this revamp is only partial. Aguilera hedges her bets by adding a ballad from old friend Linda Perry, gets Tricky Stewart to produce a trio of cuts, and drafts Polow da Don and Focus to produce some heavy and slow R&B, letting enough air into the machines to reassure hesitant fans that she hasn't abandoned her roots. All this hesitancy means that for as many risks as it takes, Bionic doesn't feel daring.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Teena Marie

Teena Marie
It's ironic when you think about it -- even though Teena Marie was dropped by Epic in the early '90s and spent the rest of the decade without a record deal, her former labels were still anxious to make money off of her by assembling collections of her best-known work. Such collections, which continued to surface in the early 2000s, focus on one of two periods -- either Marie's Motown period of the late '70s and early '80s or her Epic period of 1983-1990. Released in 2001, The Millennium Collection: The Best of Teena Marie falls into the former category and contains 11 songs she provided for Motown from 1979-1981. Many of the definitive hits that Motown offered on its 1994 release I Need Your Lovin': The Best of Teena Marie are also offered on this CD, including "Square Biz," "Behind the Groove," "I Need Your Lovin'," "Portuguese Love," and "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" (the duet with Rick James that put her on the map back in 1979). But unlike the 1994 release, this disc doesn't contain any previously unreleased rarities -- just the essential Motown singles, along with a few worthwhile album tracks like "Now That I Have You" from 1980's Lady T. When this CD came out in 2001, Marie's die-hard fans continued to hope that eventually she would land another record deal. But major labels weren't exactly lining up to sign her, and many other R&B veterans who were huge in the 1980s found themselves in the same boat. For those who haven't experienced the joys of Marie's Motown output, this CD is a fine starting point.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Black Up

Shabazz Palaces
Only a little more than a year after releasing two EPs -- a self-titled one, and Of Light -- Seattle's Shabazz Palaces signed to Sub Pop for their full-length debut. Even on a high-profile label, former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler (formerly Butterfly) maintains a shroud of mystique, rapping under the facade of Palaceer Lazaro and purposely avoiding publicity, interviews, and liner credits. Considering his long-term time in the game, his wordplay is still surprisingly relevant, and, masked as Lazaro, he reinvents himself by adding an air of sophistication to the persona of a streetwise gangster. Jazz references are no longer the norm and Butler steers away from the blaxploitation slang and rhymes about being an insect or a creamy spy, but he still has a distinctive, surreal style of flowing. Compared to former albums by Digable Planets, Cherrywine, Camp Lo (Butler guested on some of their tracks), or even on the prior Shabazz Palaces EPs (which were pretty dark to begin with), Black Up is a much harder-edged album. There are no obvious singles, and the beats are murky, splintered, and synthesized, reminiscent of the space-age rap of acts like Deltron 3030, Kool Keith, and Dälek. In a year when minimal production is on the upswing -- a trend highlighted by the enormous buzz surrounding Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator's bare-boned productions -- Shabazz Palaces seems perfectly in tune with a modern underground movement that embraces the most ominous and difficult aspects of hip-hop. As the mainstream becomes more and more predictable, Shabazz Palaces’ inscrutability is a welcome change. Because the beats are so abstract, roots take precedent, and a strong presence on the microphone becomes the most important aspect. Butler fills this role with ease. His smooth, sparkling rhymes glue Knife Knights' watery environment together to create a provocative listen from start to finish.

Jason Lymangrover, Rovi

Evanescence

Evanescence
Released five years after The Open Door, Evanescence’s third album picks up where the last one left off, with vocalist Amy Lee singing songs about death, angst, and brokenness over her band’s dark gothic grooves. Evanescence also finds room to experiment with other influences, working drum loops and synthesizers into an otherwise guitar-heavy sound. Although Steve Lillywhite was originally scheduled to produce, he was eventually replaced by Nick Raskulinecz, who brings the same sort of bottom-heavy crunch to Evanescence that he gave to the Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor., Rovi

The Writing's On The Wall

Destiny's Child

Where You Been [Digital Version] [with Bonus Track]

Dinosaur Jr
By the time Where You Been surfaced, Seattle had completely exploded, and given that Dinosaur Jr.'s sound, attitude, and more were as proto-slacker as could be, the temptation must have been great to cash in. But J Mascis stuck to his guns, and there's little about Where You Been that would have seemed out of place on Green Mind or even some earlier records. Recorded with a full band throughout, Mike Johnson and Murph lay down does-the-job rhythm tracks while Mascis tackles almost everything else. Where You Been is occasionally moody and dark but otherwise is more rough fun. Opening track "Out There" is one of the most mournful things Mascis has recorded, with an especially yearning chorus, but his fiery solo still makes it classic Dinosaur Jr. "Start Choppin" immediately follows, its quick, catchy lead riff helping to make it as close to a radio hit as the band ever had -- and, of course, a big ol' solo or two adding to the fun of it all. From there on in it's a puréed blast of punk, classic rock, and more. It may be business as usual, but it's good business just the same, whether it's the gentle "Not the Same," on which Mascis does his best Neil Young impersonation, or the stuttering feedback snorts and rips on "Hide," on which he borrows a bit back from disciple Kevin Shields. Other highlights include "Get Me," a melancholic, steady cruncher with another trademark solo of the gods, and the unjustly ignored "What Else Is New," which sounds like a mid-'70s rock ballad with louder volume and none of the crud, right down to the concluding string section. [Where You Been was reissued in 2006 in an expanded and remastered version containing three bonus tracks: a previously unreleased John Peel session of "Hide," the B-side "Keeblin'," and a live version of "What Else Is New."]

Audioslave

Audioslave
It's subtle, but telling, that the cover of Audioslave's eponymous debut is designed by Storm Thorgerson, the artist behind Pink Floyd's greatest album sleeves. Thorgerson, along with Roger Dean, epitomized the look of the '70s, the era of supergroups, which is precisely what Audioslave is -- a meeting of Rage Against the Machine, minus Zack de la Rocha, with former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell. Though both bands were leading lights of alt-metal in the '90s, the two came from totally separate vantage points: Rage Against the Machine was fearlessly modern, addressing contemporary politics over Tom Morello's hip-hop-influenced guitar, while Soundgarden dredged up '70s metal fueled with the spirit of punk. That these two vantage points don't quite fit shouldn't be a surprise -- there is little common ground between the two, apart that they're refugees from brainy post-metal bands. Of the two camps, Chris Cornell exerts the strongest influence, pushing the Rage Against the Machine boys toward catchier hooks and introspective material. Occasionally, the group winds up with songs that play to the strengths of both camps, like the storming lead single "Cochise." For Cornell fans, it's a relief to hear him unleash like this, given the reserve of his brooding solo debut, but this is hardly a one-man show. The Rage band, led by the intricate stylings of guitarist Tom Morello, gets their chance to shine, including on numbers that are subtler and shadier than the average Rage tune. Which brings up the primary fault on the album: Perhaps Morello, and perhaps the rest of RATM, are technically more gifted than, say, Soundgarden, but they never sound as majestic, as powerful, or as cinematic as what Cornell's songs need. His muted yet varied solo album proved that he needed muscle, but here it's all muscle, no texture or color. Consequently, many of the songs sound like they're just on the verge of achieving liftoff, never quite reaching their potential. There are moments, usually arriving in the first half, where Audioslave suddenly, inexplicably clicks, sounding like a "band", not a marketer's grand scheme. Still, these moments are few and far between and it's hard to get through this album as a whole. By the end, it's clear that this pairing was a clever idea, but not an inspired one.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Epiphany: The Best Of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1

Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan's career through the 1996 release of Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1 -- involving eight albums with Rufus and eight solo albums, along with assorted collaborations -- produced roughly 40 Top 40 R&B singles, not to mention dozens of undervalued album cuts. So it is clear that any one-disc attempt at wrapping up the highlights is bound to work more like a sampler than a true best-of. And though this release is given the "Vol. 1" tag, it remained without a sequel as late as 2005, when Reprise reissued it without altering the contents. Yet another frustration is that previously unreleased songs take the place of missing classics like "Sweet Thing," "Clouds," "Fate," "Close the Door," and "Stay." (That's just for starters.) Nonetheless, the disc does contain Khan's most popular work, from ballads like "Through the Fire" to anthems like "I'm Every Woman" and "Ain't Nobody," along with other radio staples, such as "I Feel for You" and "Tell Me Something Good." At the absolute least, Khan deserves a solo-only best-of, as well as a disc that sticks strictly to her work with Rufus. (The Very Best of Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, the only anthology dedicated to Rufus, has its own set of issues.)

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Greatest Hits '93 - '03

311
From the chunkheaded rap-rock beta tests "Down" and "All Mixed Up" through the blue-eyed make-out reggae of "Amber" and on to latter-day stuff like the underrated Soundsystem single "Come Original," 311 spanned the nascence and ultimate codification of the alternative nation. "F*ck the naysayers 'cause they don't mean a thing!" -- if you went to college in the 1990s, 311 was on your radar. Greatest Hits '93-'03 remasters the highlights from those years, includes the Omaha group's graceful cover of the Cure's "Love Song," and pads the set with two new songs. As for the unreleased material, "First Straw" is a pleasant enough reggae-rock jam of the variety S.A., Nick Hexum, et al., have grown skilled -- if not necessarily better -- at writing, while "How Do You Feel" is a muscular rocker with the usual eager rap/triumphant chorus dynamic. Other highlights include a version of Grassroots opener "Homebrew" remixed for added punch and grit, and the diametrically opposed Evolver cuts "Creatures (For a While)" and "Beyond the Gray Sky." While "Do You Right" is the only representative from 1993's Music, it's nice to remember that it sounds like Fishbone playing Love. In short, Greatest Hits '93-'03 is the perfect time capsule for the casual 311 fan. It might even shake loose the name of that stoner kid from freshman year.

Johnny Loftus, Rovi