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