Legends of the Fall: Great Autumn Albums

Tha Carter II

Lil' Wayne
An appropriately titled album, Tha Carter II builds on the Lil Wayne of the first Carter, the Lil Wayne who was not only cocky, but also truly confident, confident enough to loosen up his rhymes and create a winning mixture of slick baller posturing and slippery flippancy. If the first Carter found him somewhere between a crazed Silkk the Shocker and a thuggish Devin the Dude, the excellent follow-up finds him more toward the latter. Take "Money on My Mind," a track that covers the usual "get money" territory but this time with scatological whimsy and off-the-wall rhymes that would make Tracy Morgan proud. This uninhibited style is also the reason the many hookless, freestyle-ish tracks work, and while these hardcore, mixtape-sounding numbers may alienate those who don't appreciate dirty street music, they balance the slicker club singles. Recalling the gutter hits of the Hot Boys -- the crew where Lil Wayne spent his teen years -- the stomping "Fireman" was rightfully lighting up the request lines at the album's release, but the rest of the radio-worthy polish -- "Grown Man," "Hustler Music," and "Get Over" -- is much more soulful, with smooth R&B in its heart rather than tacked-on to land it on the play list. For longtime fans of Lil Wayne or the Cash Money label, the absence of regular producer Mannie Fresh is worth noting, but the Heatmakerz along with Tmix & Batman offer plenty of brilliant grime and glitter while two newcomers deliver the curveballs. Producer Yonny loops a reggae bounce and makes the smoking song "Mo Fire" drip out of the speakers like the dankest sticky-icky while Thicke -- as in Alan Thicke's son -- reprises his slinkiest number from his overlooked 2003 album Beautiful World for "Shooter," arguably the most adventurous and stylish Lil Wayne song yet. Lyrical triumphs like the epic "Tha Mobb" and the pimp-hand-showing "Receipt" seal the deal, leaving only the short, ignorable skits and the black-on-red printing in the liner notes to complain about (the latter is hell on the eyeballs). The sturdy Carter II caps off a year when the man was appointed president of Cash Money by founders Birdman and Ronald "Slim" Williams, then watched his 17th Ward, New Orleans, neighborhood destroyed by hurricane Katrina -- something bitterly touched upon during "Feel Me"'s FEMA dis, but most likely too late for press time for most tracks. The well-rounded, risk-taking, but true-to-its-roots album suggests he can weather the highs and lows like a champion and that Birdman and Slim knew something everyone else didn't when they bet the farm on the formerly "raw talent," now "fully formed" Lil Wayne.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Man On The Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager

Kid Cudi
Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon II was released in a year where rap album sequels were common, but unlike most of the competition, this sequel has a very strong link to its predecessor. It’s actually the outcome of the alt-rap star’s breakthrough debut as it deals with fame, and Cudi’s admittedly unwise way of handling it, liquid cocaine. As a result, you have to care quite a bit about this Mr. Solo Dolo character for Man on the Moon II to fully work its magic. Cudi’s opening line “You are now in the world that I’m ruining” is a spot-on warning as the album slowly spirals down into sourness and regret, but just like on his debut, the soundscape is spacy and far-reaching, making this interstellar therapy session a much more interesting transmission. At its best, it’s fascinating, like when rapper Cage and indie singer St. Vincent whirl in a paranoid black hole dubbed “Maniac,” while Cudi issues more warnings with “I love the darkness, yea, I’d like to marry it”. “Don’t Play This Song,” with Mary J. Blige, puts it even more bluntly with “Wanna know what it sounds like when I’m not on drugs?/Please, please don’t play this song” while the great “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young” tells snooping blogs they shouldn’t bother, he’ll tell his own story. Elsewhere, he seems admirably open to the idea of disgrace, but those who grow tired of the star’s indulgences will have to wait around for the out of place yet welcome numbers, like the Kanye West and rock guitar feature “Erase Me” or the dream pop influenced “Marijuana” which runs 4:20 for a reason. In the end, the lonely stoner of his debut seemed to have a wider appeal, but the contradictory, troubled artist presented here will give the Cudi faithful much more to ponder. Everything else is equal, so skeptically ease yourself in or take the full dive accordingly.

David Jeffries, Rovi

The 7 Day Theory

Makaveli
Released only eight weeks after Tupac Shakur died from gunshot wounds, Death Row released this posthumous album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, under the name of Makaveli, a pseudonym derived from the Italian politician Niccolo Machiavelli, who faked his own death and reappeared seven days later to take revenge on his enemies. Naturally, the appearance of Don Killuminati so shortly after Tupac's death led many conspiracy theorists to surmise the rapper was still alive, but it was all part of a calculated marketing strategy by Death Row. All Eyez on Me proved that Tupac was continuing to grow as a musician and a human being, but Don Killuminati doesn't improve upon that image; instead it concentrates on G-funk beats and East Coast/West Coast rivalries. If Tupac had survived to complete Don Killuminati, it is likely that the record would have been even better.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy features the fearless artistic expression of an obscure cult classic on the scale of a mainstream superstar. Transcending hip-hop and pop, this sonic barrage plays out like an audacious, epic drama—Kanye's performance finds him delving deep into his dark side, as brooding as he is bold. Memorable hits include "Runaway," "Power" and "Monster," while "All of the Lights," featuring Rihanna, is an absolute explosion. On "Lost in the World" with Bon Iver, 'Ye's raps are pure poetry: "You're my heaven, you're my hell…You're my freedom, you're my jail/You're my lies, you're my truth/You're my war, you're my truce/You're my questions, you're my proof."

– Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Use Your Illusion I

Guns N' Roses
The "difficult second album" is one of the perennial rock & roll clichés, but few second albums ever were as difficult as "Use Your Illusion". Not really conceived as a double album but impossible to separate as individual works, "Use Your Illusion" is a shining example of a suddenly successful band getting it all wrong and letting its ambitions run wild. Taking nearly three years to complete, the recording of the album was clearly difficult, and tensions between Slash, Izzy Stradlin, and Axl Rose are evident from the start. The two guitarists, particularly Stradlin, are trying to keep the group closer to its hard rock roots, but Rose has pretensions of being Queen and Elton John, which is particularly odd for a notoriously homophobic Midwestern boy. Conceivably, the two aspirations could have been divided between the two records, but instead they are just thrown into the blender -- it's just a coincidence that Use Your Illusion I is a harder-rocking record than II. Stradlin has a stronger presence on I, contributing three of the best songs -- "Dust n' Bones," "You Ain't the First," and "Double Talkin' Jive" -- which help keep the album in Stonesy Aerosmith territory. On the whole, the album is stronger than II, even though there's a fair amount of filler, including a dippy psychedelic collaboration with Alice Cooper and a song that takes its title from the Osmonds' biggest hit. But it also has two ambitious set pieces, "November Rain" and "Coma," which find Rose fulfilling his ambitions, as well as the ferocious, metallic "Perfect Crime" and the original version of the power ballad "Don't Cry." Still, it can be a chore to find the highlights on the record amid the overblown production and endless amounts of filler.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

U2
Ever since the beginning of their career, U2 had a sense of purpose and played on a larger scale than their peers, so when they stumbled with the knowing rocktronica fusion of 1997's Pop -- the lone critical and commercial flop in their catalog -- it was enough to shake the perception held among fans and critics, perhaps even among the group itself, that the band was predestined to always be the world's biggest and best rock & roll band. Following that brief, jarring stumble, U2 got back to where they once belonged with All That You Can't Leave Behind, returning to the big-hearted anthems of their '80s work. It was a confident, cinematic album that played to their strengths, winning back the allegiance of wary fans and critics, who were eager to once again bestow the title of the world's biggest and best band upon the band, but all that praise didn't acknowledge a strange fact about the album: it was a conservative affair. After grandly taking risks for the better part of a decade, U2 curbed their sense of adventure, consciously stripping away the irony that marked every one of their albums since 1991's Achtung Baby, and returning to the big, earnest sound and sensibility of their classic '80s work. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the long-awaited 2004 sequel to ATYCLB, proves that this retreat was no mere fling: the band is committed to turning back the clock and acting like the '90s never happened.

Essentially, U2 are trying to revirginize themselves, to erase their wild flirtation with dance clubs and postmodernism so they can return to the time they were the social conscience of rock music. Gone are the heavy dance beats, gone are the multiple synthesizers, gone are the dense soundscapes that marked their '90s albums, but U2 are so concerned with recreating their past that they don't know where to stop peeling away the layers. They've overcorrected for their perceived sins, scaling back their sound so far that they have shed the murky sense of mystery that gave The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree an otherworldly allure. That atmospheric cloud has been replaced with a clean, sharp production, gilded in guitars and anchored with straight-ahead, unhurried rhythms that never quite push the songs forward. This crisp production lacks the small sonic shadings that gave ATYCLB some depth, and leaves How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb showcasing U2 at their simplest, playing direct, straight-ahead rock with little subtlety and shading in the production, performance, or lyrics. Sometimes, this works to the band's detriment, since it can reveal how familiar the Edge's guitar has grown or how buffoonish Bono's affectations have become (worst offender: the overdubbed "hola!" that answers the "hello" in the chorus of "Vertigo"). But the stark production can also be an advantage, since the band still sounds large and powerful. U2 still are expert craftsmen, capable of creating records with huge melodic and sonic hooks, of which there are many on HTDAAB, including songs as reassuring as the slyly soulful "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" and the soaring "City of Blinding Lights," or the pile-driving "All Because of You." Make no mistake, these are all the ingredients that make How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb a very good U2 record, but what keeps it from reaching the heights of greatness is that it feels too constrained and calculated, too concerned with finding purpose in the past instead of bravely heading into the future. It's a minor but important detail that may not matter to most listeners, since the record does sound good when it's playing, but this conservatism is what keeps HTDAAB earthbound and prevents it from standing alongside War, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby as one of the group's finest efforts.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Kid A

Radiohead
OK Computer took the arty guitar rock ambitions of Radiohead's early years to an epic and sprawling conclusion, clearing the way for follow-up Kid A to reinvent them as the ever-evolving experimenters they've gone on to become. The album retains everything that was already stunning about Radiohead: Yorke's high sweeping falsetto, his fractured and alienated lyrics, Jonny Greenwood's deft guitar signatures and the entire band's smartly interlocking parts. But it also cements what would become their hallmark: not the electronic beats and synth smears of the revelatory track "Idioteque"—although the band would continue to use such instrumentation—but rather the album's spirit of boundless musical adventurousness. In some real sense, the Radiohead we know today begins with Kid A.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Sea Change

Beck
Beck has always been known for his ever-changing moods -- particularly since they often arrived one after another on one album, sometimes within one song -- yet the shift between the neon glitz of Midnite Vultures and the lush, somber Sea Change is startling, and not just because it finds him in full-on singer/songwriter mode, abandoning all of the postmodern pranksterism of its predecessor. What's startling about Sea Change is how it brings everything that's run beneath the surface of Beck's music to the forefront, as if he's unafraid to not just reveal emotions, but to elliptically examine them in this wonderfully melancholy song cycle. If, on most albums prior to this, Beck's music was a sonic kaleidoscope -- each song shifting familiar and forgotten sounds into colorful, unpredictable combinations -- this discards genre-hopping in favor of focus, and the concentration pays off gloriously, resulting in not just his best album, but one of the greatest late-night, brokenhearted albums in pop. This, as many reviews and promotional interviews have noted, is indeed a breakup album, but it's not a bitter listen; it has a wearily beautiful sound, a comforting, consoling sadness. His words are often evocative, but not nearly as evocative as the music itself, which is rooted equally in country-rock ("not" alt-country), early-'70s singer/songwriterism, and baroque British psychedelia. With producer Nigel Godrich, Beck has created a warm, enveloping sound, with his acoustic guitar supported by grand string arrangements straight out of Paul Buckmaster, eerie harmonies, and gentle keyboards among other subtler touches that give this record a richness that unveils more with each listen. Surely, some may bemoan the absence of the careening, free-form experimentalism of Odelay, but Beck's gifts as a songwriter, singer, and musician have never been as brilliant as they are here. As Sea Change is playing, it feels as if Beck singing to you alone, revealing painful, intimate secrets that mirror your own. It's a genuine masterpiece in an era with too damn few of them.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Aim and Ignite

Fun.
Even in the early part of the 21st century when everything from heavy metal dub to unlistenable lo-fi shoegazer mumblings gets rave reviews in the online press, progressive rock still has a bad name. So when a band comes along claiming both ELO and Sly & the Family Stone as influences, you can't help but cringe. Thankfully, the oddly punctuated band known as Fun. doesn't take itself too seriously. It's progressive, but in the best possible way. Full string sections provide Beatlesque swells of sound, churchy harmonies hint at African American Gospel music and the swooning vocals of Queen, and, yes, the rhythm section does have some of the pop bombast of ELO, but the diverse elements all come together neatly in service of the song. The arrangements break down rigid song structures with an open-ended and open-minded creativity that ranges far and wide over the musical spectrum. This music needs to be listened to as an album, in one sitting, so you can appreciate the way the musical and lyrical ideas flow together and play off of each other. That said, there are moments of genius that grab you even on your first casual listen. "At Least I'm Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)" sounds like a long-winded country song title, but it's a cabaret-flavored rock song with a vaguely Latin instrumental break, big grand piano flourishes, a nursery rhyme chorus, and a big finish. The ambiguous lyric deals with the loss of friends, or maybe the loss of one's soul, and could be a parable about the music business, or just growing up, as Nate Ruess sings it in a tenor voice full of an adolescent yearning. Life-long love is not often addressed in rock music, but that's the subject of "The Gambler." You could call it the grown-up cousin of "When I'm 64," a long, beautiful, linear narrative that takes love from 18 to old age, making the journey sound lovely and worthwhile. "Be Calm" is based in part on the melody from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," an old prog rock trick, but Fun. keeps thing moving brightly along. The song is about an approaching nervous breakdown, and the song's shifting tempos -- from jittery verse to soothing chorus -- aptly convey the singer's growing panic. In the '70s, a lot of prog rock was marred by pretentious or overly sincere or consciously mythic lyrics. Ruess, main wordsmith for Fun., doesn't fall into that trap. His lyrics have a way of investigating the larger truths of life -- loneliness, the struggles of maintaining relationships, growing up, insecurity, even death -- with a witty approach that keeps the songs bubbling merrily along on a positive note.

j. poet, Rovi

Document

R.E.M.
R.E.M. began to move toward mainstream record production on Lifes Rich Pageant, but they didn't have a commercial breakthrough until the following year's Document. Ironically, Document is a stranger, more varied album than its predecessor, but co-producer Scott Litt -- who would go on to produce every R.E.M. album in the following decade -- is a better conduit for the band than Don Gehman, giving the group a clean sound without sacrificing their enigmatic tendencies. "Finest Worksong," the stream-of-conscious rant "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and the surprise Top Ten single "The One I Love" all crackle with muscular rhythms and guitar riffs, but the real surprise is how political the mid-tempo jangle pop of "Welcome to the Occupation," "Disturbance at the Heron House," and "King of Birds" is. Where Lifes Rich Pageant sounded a bit like a party record, Document is a fiery statement, and its memorable melodies and riffs are made all the more indelible by its righteous anger. In other words, it's not only a commercial breakthrough, but a creative breakthrough as well, offering evidence of R.E.M.'s growing depth and maturity, and helping usher in the P.C. era in the process.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

2001

Dr. Dre

Licensed To Ill

Beastie Boys

American Gangster

JAY-Z
"Y'all n*ggas got me really confused out there. I make 'Big Pimpin' or 'Give It to Me,' one of those -- that had me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking sh*t -- y'all question whether he fallin' off." When you've built up a back catalog of eight studio albums and walk the earth as one of the biggest, most high-profile artists of the '90s and 2000s, you're bound to get some mixed signals from those who pay attention to you. However, the jury did not take long to reach a verdict on 2006's Kingdom Come: the consensus on it (as a major fall-off) was as swift and strong as the consensus on Reasonable Doubt (as a classic). Once used copies of Kingdom Come became easily attainable for less than two dollars, it was apparent the next Jay-Z album might not be so anticipated. He'd need to get some fresh inspiration and make some corrective maneuvers.

Fortunately, both came unexpectedly -- rather than by desperate force -- after he saw an advance screening of the early-'70s period piece American Gangster, which played a direct role in nine of the songs on this album of the same name. While several tracks connected to specific scenes are also rooted in productions trading in the regal grit that made up so much '70s soul, the album is not a straight narrative, broken up by tracks like the boom-clap of "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" (produced by Bigg D) and the glitzed-out pair of "I Know" (a half-icing Neptunes layer cake) and "Ignorant Shit" (where Just Blaze transforms the Isleys' quiet storm staple "Between the Sheets" into a high-gloss anthem). Combined with the tracks laced with '70s soul -- including six produced by Diddy & LV & Sean C, one by Toomp, and two by a newly forged partnership between Jermaine Dupri and No I.D. -- it all adds up to an album that seems nearly out of time, at least when it comes to the years spanning Jay-Z's career, without resembling a true regression. "Success," for instance, takes its lead from The Black Album's "Public Service Announcement," with blaring organ over heavily weighted drum knocks, yet despite the likeness, it's one of the album's highlights. And while Jay mentions American Gangster and protagonist Frank Lucas directly, and intersperses some tracks with dialogue, the connection does not overshadow the album. It's not like he's yelling "Shaft's Big Score 2K7!" or "Leonard Part Six, Part Two!" It's all as natural as Scarface riffing off Scarface.

And that might be the most common complaint about the album -- it's really just another case of Jay-Z being Jay-Z, albeit with different presentation. Unless you know each verse from Reasonable Doubt through Kingdom Come, it might sound like he's dealing with no variation on well-worn themes, the exact same thoughts and emotions that make up older tracks about his past as a drug dealer -- the rise, the arrogance, the conflictedness, the fall, and all stages in between. When he's in the right frame of mind, though, as he is throughout much of the album's duration (it is a bit sluggish in spots), he's as affective with his subject as Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye were with romance. Just as key, the level of insolence and spite on display here is as high as it has ever been. "I got watches I ain't seen in months/Apartment at the Trump, I only slept in it once/N*ggas said Hova was over, such dummies/Even if I fell I land on a bunch of money" has more of those qualities than all of Kingdom Come. One could say that's not really saying much, but regardless of context, this is a very good Jay-Z album. He is, for the most part, doing what he has done before: what he does best. [An acapella version of the album was also released.]

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Fame Monster

Lady Gaga
Initially planned solely as a standard double-disc reissue in the wake of the blockbuster success of The Fame, Lady Gaga decided to release the new material as a separate EP called The Fame Monster in addition to the standard two-CD set, where it’s tacked onto a now standardized version of her debut. It’s a nice move for fans, plus it helps emphasize the new material, which does act as a bridge from the debut to a forthcoming full-length. Everything on The Fame Monster bears a galvanized Eurotrash finish, as evident on the heavy steel synths of “Bad Romance” and the updated ABBA revision “Alejandro” as it is on the rock & roll ballad “Speechless” -- its big guitars lifted from Noel Gallagher -- and the wonderful, perverse march “Teeth.” Even the stuttering splices on “Telephone,” a duet with Beyoncé, leans to the other side of the Atlantic, which just emphasizes the otherness that’s become Gaga’s calling card. And even as she’s becoming omnipresent, with her songs mingling with those who co-opt her on the radio, she is still slightly skewed, willing to go so far over the top that she goes beyond camp, yet still channeling it through songs that are written, not just hooks. The Fame Monster builds upon those strengths exhibited on The Fame, offering a credible expansion of the debut and suggesting she’s not just a fleeting pop phenomenon.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Great Depression

DMX
In such a time of confusion, it's eerie that DMX would dub his latest vehicle, "The Great Depression." After all, we are still recovering from the greatest tragedy our generation will hopefully have to endure. While X continues to cater his music to the misguided soul, he does reinvent himself to some extent on "The Great Depression." The end result is a more self-contained X, which minus two Swizz Beatz contributions finds Darkman virtually cutting all ties to his Ruff Ryder Click, and cozying up to a slew of un-established producers who add a new wrinkle to his usually resolute sound. Though the recording move from NY, to Arizona may have initially raised some eyebrows (Anyone remember Public Enemy's "By The Time I Get To Arizona"?). The very same desert sanctuary X sought recording asylum in contains a duality that plays into his strengths, as the desert can be as tranquil as the Dalai Lama, and as savage as a rapid pit bull. X taps into both of those facets with equal ferocity on "The Great Depression"---with varying results. While X attacks street-anthems such as "We Right Here", and the rugged "Who We Be" (tadanh, tadanh, tadanh) like a powder keg ready to detonate. These gully bangers are levied by X's newfound reliance in God; exemplified by the yearning "A Minute For Your Son", and the touching ode to his Grandmother "I Miss You" f/Faith Evans. Fortunately these hard knock life accounts play out better then the misogynistic set-up track "Shorty Was The Bomb", and the bland soul sample ("Whatcha Gonna Do" With My Lovin') that X and Dame Grease lift for the tepid "When I'm Nothing" f/Stephanie Mills.

Matt Conaway, Rovi

Heroes

David Bowie

Talking Book

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder's 1972 album Talking Book is comparable to The Beatles' Rubber Soul: Both artists subsequently recorded more innovative work. Yet Talking Book sounds more effortless and certainly less political than 1973's Innervisions. It mostly consists of love songs, save for "Big Brother," a chronicle of ghetto blues, and the classic hit "Superstition." Wonder makes it all sound vibrant with his boundless imagination and curiosity. He incorporates hints of Brazilian bossa nova into "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and invites Jeff Beck to play a solo on "Lookin' for Another Pure Love." Sly & the Family Stone's then-recent 1971 masterpiece There's a Riot Going On seems to be a heavy influence on Wonder's sound, particularly in the drawling funk of "Maybe Your Baby." But Wonder could never succumb to the nihilism that overwhelmed Sly Stone. Despite dealing with racism, economic despair and an occasional broken heart, he still believes that when he falls in love, it will be forever.

Mosi Reeves

Raising Sand

Alison Krauss
There's something vaguely sinister in the bones of Raising Sand: its dusky production; the repentant desires of its songs; the interlocked harmonies of grizzled Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and honeyed bluegrass ambassador Alison Krauss. And though Krauss and Plant make the most curious of rock 'n' roll bedfellows, the powerfully captivating results scored five Grammys, including 2009 Album of the Year. Much of the atmospheric magic is the touch of producer T-Bone Burnett, who handpicked old and new songs that perfectly suited the duo. Among the many highlights are Roland Salley's perfectly lazy "Killing the Blues" and the shuffling ease of Gene Clark's "Through the Morning, Through the Night."

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

The Band Perry

The Band Perry
After the success of their first two singles -- "If I Die Young" and "Hip to My Heart," the Band Perry issued a self-titled teaser: a five-track EP that featured a different mix of the latter track. This is confusing, given that it's also the title of their debut album. This is especially true since everything about the group -- Kimberly Perry (lead vocals, guitar, and piano), Reid Perry (bass guitar), and Neil Perry (drums, mandolin, and accordion) -- is so carefully crafted by management, from their look and public image as a family group to their production and presentation (in other words, everything but their considerable talent for writing hooky, rootsy, country-pop songs). Ultimately, it's the latter that matters most. The Perrys wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of what's here. All five tracks from the EP are included on the album (the original mix of "Hip to My Heart" is here, rather than the video mix) along with six others. The meld of acoustic guitars, mandolins, accordion, and piano is added to considerably, with strings, big kick drums, pedal steel, and of course, fiddle. The songs here are carefully crafted; there isn't an extra word, chorus, or beat. The guitar solos are all in the right places, and all the electric instruments take a back seat to the acoustic ones. Standout tracks include the two singles, the angry, damning heartbreak song "Postcards from Paris," and "Independence," with its anthemic chorus and Kimberly Perry's passionate vocal chock-full of determination. The bluesy little rocker "Double Heart" is uncharacteristic of the rest of the set, and may be its best, most unguarded cut. There is no doubt that the Band Perry fits 2010's contemporary country radio and video format. Despite their obvious gifts for writing, singing, and arranging, the album is prone to some overly glossy mistakes. It will be interesting to see how they mature with album number two.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Shock 'N Y'all

Toby Keith
Since Toby Keith not only can come across as a loudmouth redneck but seems to "enjoy" being a loudmouth redneck, it's easy for some listeners to dismiss him as a backwoods right-wing crank -- particularly when he succumbs to such easy impulses as mocking Dixie Chick Natalie Maines in concert and naming his 2003 album Shock'n Y'All, not so cleverly spinning the military catch phrase from the second Iraq war into a bad pun. Those listeners aren't entirely wrong, since he can succumb to reactionary politics, as on swill like "Beer for My Horses," but Keith isn't coming from a didactic right-wing standpoint. He's an old-fashioned, cantankerous outlaw who's eager to be as oversized and larger than life as legends like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson, who bucked conventions and spoke their minds. Sure, Keith enjoys pandering to the Fox News Republicans "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" won him, and his jingoistic ventures don't have the humanity and humor of Haggard's protest songs (although to Keith's credit they display far more humanity than Sean Hannity and are much more genuine than Steve Earle's post-9/11 songs), but that doesn't mean Keith doesn't have a big, warm heart. In fact, on every album prior to Shock'n Y'All he's displayed a taste for mawkish sentiment, but what makes this album work is that he's turned that sentiment into warmth while making the record into the hardest, toughest set of songs he's yet made. Unleashed gave him the clout to make any kind of music he wanted, and left to his own devices, he's lonesome, on'ry, and mean, a cheerful advocate of redneck libertarianism with a sly sense of humor. All of which wouldn't mean much if he wasn't a strong songwriter, and more than any of his previous works, Shock'n Y'All proves that he's a steady-handed journeyman, crafting songs in the tradition of classic outlaw country. It's a deliberately hard-driving, hard-drinking, gutsy country album, yet it doesn't shy away from modernism, best illustrated on "Sweet," with its funky rhythms and use of "babelicious" (which rhymes with "delicious," btw). Even with these modern flourishes, the album is firmly within the hard country tradition, with lots of barroom humor, propulsive rhythms, hearty humor, and a humanity that contradicts the rabble-rousing of Unleashed. And if Keith is more of a party-hearty hound than a profound singer -- even when he imagines "If I Was Jesus," it's only so he can turn water into wine at parties -- that's now an attribute, not a deficiency, since it gives him focus and sensibility. Keith is happy to be a dirty old SOB, cracking jokes, drinking beer, and flirting with the ladies, and that makes Shock'n Y'All a fun, rough, rowdy album that wins you over despite your better impulses. It's not polite, but Shock'n Y'All is pure Toby Keith, and the best album he's done to date.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Long Trip Alone

Dierks Bentley
It's a sign of Dierks Bentley's increasing stardom and clout that he has a writing credit on all 11 songs on his third album, 2006's Long Trip Alone. Not every country singer/songwriter gets a chance to do that, but not every singer/songwriter scores a bona fide hit with his sophomore set, and Bentley's 2005 Modern Day Drifter was that, reaching the top of the Billboard country charts and spawning several hits, including the number one "Settle for a Slowdown." Such success allows an artist to set his own pace, at least a little bit, and Bentley was already showing signs of being a headstrong troubadour on Modern Day Drifter, consciously referring -- both lyrically and musically -- to such classic country mavericks as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard throughout the record. Given these deliberate allusions to such musical rebels, it would made some sense if Bentley followed their path and crafted a third album that was tougher, wilder, rougher than his breakthrough, but Long Trip Alone isn't that at all: it's a slick, streamlined version of his hit album. Keep in mind that slick and streamlined aren't the same thing as soulless; rather, the polish of Long Trip Alone is a sign of Bentley's increased confidence and professionalism, and how he wants to stay at the top now that he's gotten there. As such, the album is so clean it sparkles -- all the better for it to fit into mainstream country radio -- but beneath that sheen, Bentley remains a little restless, even risky. He'll bring the Grascals to play on "Prodigal Son's Prayer," letting them steer the duet toward their bluegrass roots; he'll explain that "The Heaven I'm Headed To" has a place for both priests and prostitutes; and he'll play tribute to his honky tonk beginnings, on "Band of Brothers," which isn't only a musical tip of the hat to hardcore country, but also a sly salute to his fellow road-warriors. But the main impression of Long Trip Alone isn't that restlessness; it's how Bentley can come across as a entirely mainstream country act without losing his sense of self. He's a savvy songwriter, particularly when he's slyly incorporating elements of rock or pop into his country (check out the anthemic opening of "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" for the former, "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" for the latter), managing to be commercial without being crass, coming across as sentimental, not saccharine, on his earnest ballads. At times, it seems like he could use a little bit more heft or grit in his voice, yet his simple, straight-ahead singing enhances his Everyman qualities and helps make him and his music all the more likeable. Perhaps Long Trip Alone may disappoint fans who were looking for his next album to be an unapologetic hard country record, but in a way, this is more interesting: Dierks Bentley has kept that spirit and put it within the confines of mainstream country, resulting in one of the livelier and better country records of 2006 and one that proves he is indeed a major talent.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

When I Call Your Name

Vince Gill
Vince Gill left RCA after The Way Back Home in 1987. Tony Brown signed him to MCA shortly thereafter, and When I Call Your Name served as Gill's MCA debut and the beginning of his long association with the label and with Brown as a producer. Gill, already a seasoned pop musician and Nashville session player, brought with him the ability to write terrific songs and play the hell out of a guitar, along with a sweet-looking face and a killer voice. Brown set out to make him a star and pretty much succeeded the first time out, and in the early 21st century Gill is still racking them up on the charts. He served as contemporary country music's first real star and, along with the more traditional George Strait (another longtime survivor and hitmaker), was a true and respectful link to the music's long heritage. The first track to score on this set was "Oklahoma Swing," a smoking Western swing duet with Reba McEntire written by Tim DuBois, who also wrote an even bigger hit with the title track that paired Gill with Patty Loveless. Gill also did serviceable covers of Guy Clark's (then an RCA staff songwriter) classic "Rita Ballou" and "Sight for Sore Eyes," and Rosanne Cash's "Never Alone," which opened the disc. He also covered the criminally underappreciated Greg Trooper's midtempo ballad "We Won't Dance." Gill's own tunes, for perhaps the only time in his career, were used as filler on the album -- he wrote three of ten -- but he still managed a beauty with the gorgeous romantic stroller "Oh Girl (You Know Where to Find Me)." When I Call Your Name serves as the testament to Gill's arrival as a star and an enduring part of the country music legacy.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Voyage To India (Limited Edition)

India.Arie
Despite an excellent debut, India.Arie still had much to prove with her second record. Several of her neo-soul compatriots, from D'Angelo to Erykah Badu to Macy Gray, had faltered with sophomore albums, and it appeared she may have already said everything she had to say on Acoustic Soul. That anticipation, and trepidation, is exactly what makes Voyage to India such a beautiful surprise; it's a record that easily equals her debut, boasting better vocal performances but also better songwriting and accompanying production. As on her debut, there is a marked balance of organic and artificial: an acoustic guitar paces many tracks, though the edges are shorn off for a digital feel; the beats are often sampled, but there are still plenty of handclaps and fingersnaps; and the arrangements are simple yet obviously very polished. The improvement in her songwriting is most obvious from the first three tracks (after the short intro). The themes driving "Little Things" (keeping it simple), "Talk to Her" (the importance of honesty, warmth, and communication in relationships), and "Slow Down" (taking life one day at a time) certainly have been covered already, many times even, but India.Arie writes with a fresh perspective that makes it sound as though she's the first to broach the topic. And, finally, her delivery is the best of any neo-soul vocalist, barring only the incomparable Jill Scott, alternately earnest and playful and sexy and questing. It all adds up to one of the most glowing comebacks of the year (if she ever left), an important record whose stamp -- the Motown logo -- isn't the only thing it has in similarity with a classic LP by Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder.

John Bush, Rovi

Rated R (Explicit Version)

Rihanna
"Russian Roulette," released weeks prior to Rated R, just hinted at Rihanna's sudden desire to provoke. Even with the realization that it is metaphorical, the song startles with its hesitant gasps, spinning cylinders, and verses that are glacially paced, where a cold piano line and the slight inflections in Rihanna's voice are front and center. And then there’s an audible shudder followed by a discharged bullet -- the abrupt end to one of Rated R’s most restrained moments. It’s not the only instance where Rihanna’s rise in fame, combined with being the victim in the decade’s highest-profile felonious assault, added up to a perfect-storm scenario for a creative overhaul. Rated R is more like "Good Girl Gone Evil", or "Abused Girl Full of Vengeful Rage", not Good Girl Gone Bad, where the only casualties were some dishes. The closest the set gets to upbeat pop is “Rude Boy,” and by any standard it is stern; needless to say, there is quite a difference between “Can you get it up?” and “You can stand under my umbrella.” Much of this daring album is absolutely over the top, bleak and sleek both lyrically and sonically, but it’s compelling, filled with as many memorably belligerent lines -- two of which, “I pitch with a grenade/Swing away if ya feeling brave” and “I’m such a fuckin’ lady,” set the tone early on -- as a rap album made ripe for dissection. “G4L,” over a low-slung and sleek production, is the most fantastical of all, in which Rihanna leads a band of homicidal women, opening with “I lick the gun when I’m done ‘cause I know that revenge is sweet” and “Any mothaf*cka wanna disrespect/Playin’ with fire finna get you wet.” The breakup song, “Fire Bomb,” even though it is also metaphorical, is a close second in terms of lyrical extremity: “I just wanna set you on fire so I won’t have to burn alone.” Some of the breathers -- the songs that are less intense -- hold the album back since Rihanna sounds detached from them. The one exception is the wistful, bittersweet “Photographs,” a rare instance of the singer dropping her guard, but it really sticks out since it is surrounded by material that has her taking the variably authentic roles of abused lover, dominatrix, and murderer. Whether the album seems ridiculous or spectacular (or both), Rihanna's complete immersion in the majority of the songs cannot be disputed. That is the one thing that is not up for debate.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

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

My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1)

Mary J. Blige
Mary J.’s 1994 sophomore album, My Life, was a stripped-down, achingly confessional collection of pleas to her then-boyfriend K-Ci from Jodeci. Seventeen years later, the queen of hip-hop soul presents a sequel of sorts that is healed, polished and celebratory. On “Midnight Drive,” she makes a late-night run into her baby’s arms, while “Love a Woman” finds her teaming up with Beyoncé to offer advice on how to treat a lady. Blige’s lyrics and vocals are assured, and the album exudes a certain resilience, as if the singer is standing taller after a hard-won journey.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Nothing Like The Sun

Sting
If Dream of the Blue Turtles was an unabashedly pretentious affair, it looks positively lighthearted in comparison to Sting's sophomore effort, Nothing Like the Sun, one of the most doggedly serious pop albums ever recorded. This is an album where the only up-tempo track, the only trifle -- the cheerfully stiff white-funk "We'll Be Together" -- was added at the insistence of the label because they believed there wasn't a cut on the record that could be pulled as a single, one that would break down the doors to mainstream radio. And they were right, since everything else here is too measured, calm, and deliberately subtle to be immediate (including the intentional throwaway, "Rock Steady"). So, why is it a better album than its predecessor? Because Sting doesn't seem to be trying so hard. It flows naturally, largely because this isn't trying to explicitly be a jazz-rock record (thank the presence of a new rhythm section of Sting and drummer Manu Katche for that) and because the melodies are insinuating, slowly working their way into memory, while the entire record plays like a mood piece -- playing equally well as background music or as intensive, serious listening. Sting's words can still grate -- the stifling pompousness of "History Will Teach Us Nothing" the clearest example, yet calls of "Hey Mr. Pinochet" also strike an uneasy chord -- but his lyricism shines on "The Lazarus Heart," "Be Still My Beating Heart," "They Dance Alone," and "Fragile," a quartet of his very finest songs. If Nothing Like the Sun runs a little too long, with only his Gil Evans-assisted cover of "Little Wing" standing out in the final quarter, it still maintains its tone until the end and, since it's buoyed by those previously mentioned stunners, it's one of his better albums.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Seeds of Love

Tears For Fears
Tears for Fears' third album was their third -- and, in many ways, their most impressive -- pop masterpiece in a row, which was lucky, because it had a production history that made the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's look like a spontaneously generated single. The comparison with the Beatles' album is especially apt, not just because of the time it took to make -- the three years between this record and its predecessor recalled that whole late-'60s/early-'70s phenomenon of artists in a seeming contest to see who could take the longest between releases and spend the most studio time on an album -- but also in the ornate cover and interior art, and the album's centerpiece, "Sowing the Seeds of Love." The latter was a conscious homage to "All You Need Is Love" and also a political song (with a dig at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's conservative government) of the same type that John Lennon and company used to engage in occasionally as a band -- though American soul and gospel influences are the most musically obvious attributes here. True, the album ended up more a canvas for co-founder Roland Orzabal than a "group" effort by Orzabal and co-founder Curt Smith -- and the partnership splintered in the three years it took to make, with Nicky Holland succeeding Ian Stanley on keyboards and supplanting Smith as Orzabal's songwriting collaborator, but the results were difficult to dismiss. And with this expanded re-release, The Seeds of Love has finally gotten an edition worthy of the effort that went into delivering it -- the majestic opener, "Women in Chains," with its richly textured mix of electric, electronic, and acoustic sounds and almost operatic vocals -- also steeped in gospel -- seems almost larger than life here, and that's pretty much true of the entire album. All of it is laid out in audiophile clarity -- the best vocals in Tears for Fears' history (and, not coincidentally, featuring guest singer Oleta Adams in a prominent if not dominant role), and their most ambitious production (yet, ironically, juxtaposed around their most basic musical structures). The four bonus tracks are more a matter of 15 and a half minutes of loose ends from the convoluted sessions being tied up than anything essential being added to the original record -- the worldbeat rap number "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," the highly percussive fan favorite "Tears Roll Down," the searing guitar and keyboard-dominated "Always in the Past," and the ethereal "Music for Tables." None of them are essential, though the first is enlightening and shows some other directions the rest of the music might've taken. The annotation by Richard Smith is highly informative as well, and ties up more loose ends than the bonus tracks do.

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Right Or Wrong

George Strait
The electric pianos that kick off "You Look So Good in Love," the opening song on George Strait's third album Right or Wrong, may suggest that Strait is softening a bit, but that first impression is a bit misleading. As soon as that ballad is over, he launches into the Bob Wills standard that gives this album its title and he's as dexterous and as pure country as ever, and the rest of the album follows the lead of its title song, not the opening cut. To be sure, there are other ballads and slightly slicker material here, but the heart of this record is in the pure country of the Bakersfield love tune "A Little Heaven's Rubbing Off on Me," the light, funny "80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper," the Merle Haggard cover "Our Paths May Never Cross" and the barroom weeper "Let's Fall to Pieces Together." The overall tone of Right or Wrong is a little bit lighter than his first two albums -- the Western swing skips, it doesn't ride the beat hard, the honky tonk numbers don't hit at the gut, they hit at the heart -- but that only emphasizes how natural Strait's delivery is, and how he makes it all sound easy, and all sound good. It's another fine album from a singer who was already notching up a lot of them.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Walk On

John Hiatt
Walk On is a classic "road" album in the sense that its songs largely seem written to or about people who are not present, either because the singer is away from them, he is singing about the past, or they are dead. John Hiatt exploits the resulting feelings of longing, anger, and mourning inherent in that premise, sometimes, as in "I Can't Wait," singing about wanting to be back home, sometimes, as in the odd love song "Ethylene," wishing for a departed lover, sometimes, as in "Dust Down a Country Road," reflecting as in a dream on the past. He employs rustic nature imagery, but frequently for ominous effects rather than gentle ones, and he is supported by spare, guitar-dominated backup that is alternately soothing and disturbing. Hiatt's label debut for Capitol (though they didn't do much to promote it), Walk On is not among Hiatt's more consistent or more accessible works, but he remains a highly imaginative and craftsmanlike writer who can startle you. The raucous "Shredding the Document" is among the half-dozen best songs of the year, if not the decade.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Gold

Ryan Adams
One would think that being Ryan Adams would be a pretty good deal at the time of this album's release; he had a major-label deal, critics were in love with him, he got to date Winona Ryder and Alanis Morissette, Elton John went around telling everyone he was a genius, and his record company gave him "carte blanche" to do whatever he wanted. But to listen to Gold, Adams' first solo album for his big-league sponsors at Lost Highway, one senses that there are about a dozen other musicians Adams would love to be, and nearly all of them were at their peak in the early to mid-'70s. Adams' final album with Whiskeytown, Pneumonia, made it clear that he was moving beyond the scruffy alt-country of his early work, and Gold documents his current fascination with '70s rock. Half the fun of the album is playing "Spot the Influence": "Answering Bell" is a dead ringer for Van Morrison (with fellow Morrison enthusiast Adam Duritz on backing vocals), "Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues" is obviously modeled on the Rolling Stones, "Harder Now That It's Over" sounds like Harvest-period Neil Young, "New York, New York" resembles Stephen Stills in his livelier moments (Stephen's son, Chris Stills, plays on the album), and "Rescue Blues" and "La Cienega Just Smiled" suggest the influence of Adams' pal Elton John. Of course, everyone has their influences, and Adams seems determined to make the most of them on Gold; it's a far more ambitious album than his solo debut, Heartbreaker. The performances are polished, Ethan Johns' production is at once elegant and admirably restrained, Adams is in strong voice throughout, and several of the songs are superb, especially the swaggering but lovelorn "New York, New York," the spare and lovely "When the Stars Go Blue," and the moody closer, "Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd." But while Gold sounds like a major step forward for Adams in terms of technique, it lacks the heart and soul of Heartbreaker or Pneumonia; the album seems to reflect craft rather than passion, and while it's often splendid craft, the fire that made Whiskeytown's best work so special isn't evident much of the time. Gold sounds like an album that could win Ryan Adams a lot of new fans (especially with listeners whose record collections go back a ways), but longtime fans may be a bit put off by the album's richly crafted surfaces and emotionally hollow core. [Lost Highway released a DVD-audio edition in 2003.]

Mark Deming, Rovi

Mama Tried (Remastered)

Merle Haggard
Mama Tried is a typically fine late-'60s LP from Merle Haggard, comprised of a number of strong originals and several excellent covers. While "Mama Tried" stands out among Haggard's original material, "I'll Always Know" and "You'll Never Love Me Now" are both solid songs. Still, those two tracks pale next to the best covers on the record. Merle delivers "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me," "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)," "Teach Me to Forget," "Run 'Em Off" and "Too Many Bridges to Cross Over" with grit and an open, affecting honesty that makes Mama Tried one of Hag's best records.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blacklisted

Neko Case

Electric Waco Chair

Waco Brothers
As The Waco Brothers mature into a real band rather than just another of Jon Langford's many side projects, Dean Schlabowske and Tracy Dear have tried to carry a greater amount of the songwriting weight, and their sound has taken on a more individual personality, rather than the "Mekons-with-a-twang-and-faster-tempos" sound of their debut. This didn't work out so well on 1999's Waco World, a somewhat muddled set that lacked the fire and focus of the group's best work, but Electric Waco Chair finds the Wacos firmly back on track; Schlabowske and Dear are learning to deliver material just as strong as Langford's always top-shelf work (especially "Jamaican Radio Obituary" and "Fox River"), and the band sounds tighter, stronger, and more expressive than ever before (the three live cuts also testify to the Wacos undeniable strength on stage). If Electric Waco Chair offers a bit less pure fury than the Waco Brothers' high-water mark, Cowboy in Flames, from a musical standpoint it finds this band sounding better than ever before, and their rabble-rousing anger is still very much in evidence if you're looking for it; the Waco Brothers are one of the very best bands to emerge from the alt-country scene, and this album proves they're only getting better with time.

Mark Deming, Rovi

The Fall

Norah Jones
With The Fall, Norah Jones completes the transition away from her smooth cabaret beginnings and toward a mellowly arty, modern singer/songwriter. Jones began this shift on 2007's Not Too Late, an album that gently rejected her tendencies for lulling, tasteful crooning, but The Fall is a stronger, more cohesive work, maintaining an elegantly dreamy state that's faithful to the crooner of Come Away with Me while feeling decidedly less classicist. Some of this could be attributed to Jones' choice of producer, Jacquire King, best-known for his work with Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon, but King hardly pushes Norah in a rock direction; The Fall does bear some mild echoes of Fiona Apple or Aimee Mann in ballad mode, but its arrangements never call attention to themselves, the way that some Jon Brion productions do. Instead, the focus is always on Jones' voice and songs, which are once again all originals, sometimes composed in conjunction with collaborators including her longtime colleagues Jesse Harris, Ryan Adams, and Will Sheff of Okkervil River. In addition to King's pedigree, the latter two co-writers suggest a slight indie bent to Jones' direction, which isn't an inaccurate impression -- there's certainly a late-night N.Y.C. vibe to these songs -- but it's easy to overstate the artiness of The Fall, especially when compared to Not Too Late, which wore its ragged ambitions proudly. Here, Jones ties up loose ends, unafraid to sound smooth or sultry, letting in just enough dissonance and discord to give this dimension, creating a subtle but rather extraordinary low-key record that functions as a piece of mood music but lingers longer, thanks to its finely crafted songs.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Copperhead Road

Steve Earle
Steve Earle and Nashville had had just about enough of one another once it came time for him to cut his third album in 1988. Earle's first two albums, Guitar Town and Exit 0, had sold well and earned enthusiastic reviews, but his stubborn refusal to make nice, his desire to make more rock-influenced albums, and the faint but clear Leftism in his populist lyrical stance made him no friends at MCA's Nashville offices, and his growing dependence on heroin didn't help matters one bit. Earle was moved to MCA's Los Angeles-based Uni imprint, and he headed to Memphis to cut his third album, Copperhead Road. The result improbably became one of Earle's strongest albums; between its big drum sound, arena-sized guitars, and a swagger that owed more to the Rolling Stones and Guns N' Roses than country's New Traditionalists, Copperhead Road was the unabashed rock & roll album Earle had long threatened to make, but his attitude and personality were strong enough to handle the oversized production, and the songs showed that for all the aural firepower, this was still the same down-home troublemaker from Earle's first two albums. The moonshiner's tale of the title cut, the gunfighter's saga of "The Devil's Right Hand," and the story of two generations of soldiers in "Johnny Come Lately" (with the Pogues sitting in as Earle's backing band) were all tough but compelling narratives rooted in country tradition, and their rock moves updated them without robbing them of their power. And if the songs about love that dominate the album's second half don't have the same immediate impact, "Even When I'm Blue," "You Belong to Me," and "Once You Love" are honest and absorbing reflections of the heart of this dysfunctional romantic. Copperhead Road's production, which occasionally borders on hair metal territory, dates it, but the fire of Earle's performances and the strength of the songs more than compensates, and this album still connects 20 years on: if he had been able to hold himself together and make a few more records this strong, it's hard to imagine how big a star he could have become.

Mark Deming, Rovi

A Hundred Million Suns

Snow Patrol

En Concert

Jack Johnson

Illadelph Halflife

The Roots
For the Roots' second major-label album, the band apparently recognized the weaknesses of the debut, since there are several songs which provide more structure than previous jam-session efforts -- two even became R&B radio hits. But for all its successes, Illadelph Halflife mostly repeats the long-winded jams and loose improvisatory feel that characterized Do You Want More?!!!??!. And while these songs may sound great live (a field where the Roots excel over any other rap act), in a living-room setting listeners need hooks on which to focus.

John Bush, Rovi

Whoa, Nelly!

Nelly Furtado
Nelly Furtado's Whoa, Nelly! is one of those albums that's designed to be a surprising, precocious debut -- the kind of record that's meant to make a listener exclaim, well, "whoa nelly" upon the first spin. From that first play, it's evident that Furtado is indeed an audacious songwriter, not at all hesitant to bare her emotions, tackle winding melodies, and bend boundaries to the point that much of the record sounds like folk-pop tinged with bossa nova and backed by a production designed for TLC. Clearly, this is a musician with big, serious ambitions, a notion that is supported not only by her naked lyrics but especially by her singing. Furtado is a restless vocalist, skitting and scatting with abandon, spitting out rapid repetitions, bending notes, and frequently indulging in melismas. This, more than anything, makes her a bit of an acquired taste, since her relentless vocalizing can obscure hooks that are nevertheless there. Once you appreciate (or grow to understand) her quirks, Whoa, Nelly! unfolds as a rewarding, promising debut, albeit one with its flaws. True, most of those flaws arise from its naïveté: a tendency to push too hard, whether it's in piecing together genres in an attempt to create something original or lyrics that can sound a little sophomoric in their soul-searching. These don't arrive in isolated instances, either -- they're wound into the songs themselves. You either choose to be annoyed by these quirks or become charmed by them, realizing it's a first album, and savoring the talent that's apparent on much of the album. Many of her blends of pop, folk, dance, and Latin are beguiling; she has a knack for strong pop hooks (particularly on "On the Radio," "Well, Well," and "Turn Off the Light"); her lyrical imagery can be evocative; she has a sly sense of humor; and, when she doesn't get carried away, she's an inventive, endearingly eccentric vocalist. These are the things that endure after that first slightly bewildering spin of Whoa, Nelly! and those are the things that make you wonder where she goes from here.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

For True

Trombone Shorty