Aw, This Deal is Done :/

My Head Is An Animal

Of Monsters And Men
The performance that launched Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men in the States was an intimate, acoustic living room session recorded in late 2010 for (Reykjavik sister-city) Seattle's KEXP. Their full-length debut, My Head Is an Animal, similarly begins with just acoustic guitar and male/female vocal harmonies, but it quickly opens up into anthemic upsweep and choral shouts worthy of Arcade Fire, as the six-piece band expands from indie folk to booming chamber pop. There is odd instrumentation (accordion, melodica, glockenspiel), lively percussion and background vocals, and subtle effects of studio space; this is an album that announces Of Monsters and Men as a vastly bigger, and more ambitious, beast.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Fortune

Chris Brown
F.A.M.E. was Chris Brown's first album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. Five of its singles went Top Five R&B/Hip-Hop, and it took the Grammy for Best R&B Album. The singer clearly feels more emboldened than ever, as he declares in Fortune's second song, the slow motion boom and wobble that is "Bassline": "I'm winnin', you heard about my image, but I could give a flyin' motherfuck who's offended." Save for a handful of quasi-sensitive ballads, Fortune is an album of unapologetic swashbuckling. In "Bassline," Brown demands "Get butt naked to my bassline." The hook to "Sweet Love" begins with "Baby, let's get naked." That song is followed by "Strip," as in "Girl, I just wanna see you strip." Those three lines are among Fortune's cleanest. Even the atmospheric, impeccably-produced ballad "2012" -- involving some kind of Mayan apocalypse scenario where Brown and his lover are called upon to reverse the planet's fate -- gets graphic. Each line, from "Can you feel my submarine?" to "Girl, I like the way it opens up when you throw it back," has something shameless about it, while "I got that pillow for your knees right here" is the closest Brown gets to selflessness. All the way at the other end of the spectrum, "Girl, you better not change your mind" -- a prelude to the one-night stand in "Biggest Fan" -- is this album's "Don't you be on that bullshit." The productions are highlighted by contributions from the Runners, Adonis, and Kevin McCall. [A clean version of the album was also released.]

Andy Kellman, Rovi

channel ORANGE (Explicit Version)

Frank Ocean
Coming on the heels of 2011's heralded Tumblr-only freebie effort Nostalgia Ultra, Frank Ocean's proper debut Channel Orange firmly establishes the singer/songwriter as one of music's most unique storytellers. His tales tend toward the hyper-personal and are so steeped in naive optimism—even in the face of tragedy and defeat—that they could easily be read as either deeply moving or incredibly cheesy. At their best, they're both. Frank and producer Malay blend and wear their musical influences proudly, finding a sonic middle ground between vintage Stevie Wonder and recent N.E.R.D. Unfortunately, they tend to favor the formlessness of the latter, as Frank's meandering narratives about drug dealers and users and Los Angeles brats gone wild supersede his concern for traditional hook writing and song structure. But, by the album's second half, this ceases to be a weakness. Late cuts like the taxicab catharsis of "Bad Religion" and "Pink Matter," an epic duet with Outkast's Andre 3000 that invokes the human life cycle and Dragonball Z, operate with such naked honesty that they transcend the need for form.

-- – Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Some Nights

Fun.
Fun.'s debut album Aim and Ignite was an interesting blend of seemingly divergent styles topped by a healthy dose of grandiose ambition and performed with a precise abandon. The trio made an album that was truly progressive and also super catchy and fun. The follow-up, Some Nights, ramps up the ambition and sonic bombast, but also manages to be even more powerful and impressive. While writing and planning the album, singer Nate Ruess, guitarist Jack Antonoff, and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost were heavily influenced by both the sound and scope of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and made every attempt to achieve something similar, even to the point of hiring that album's co-producer Jeff Bhasker to produce and craft beats for them. (Also Emile Haynie, who has worked with Eminem among others) Though the album has more of a hip-hop influence than Aim and Ignite did, there are still large doses of Queen and ELO coursing through the band's blood, both in the machine-crafted vocal harmonies and the ornate bigness of the sound. The album is overloaded with strings and horns, backing vocals, keyboards, and programmed drums surrounding Ruess like a clamoring crowd, but never drowning out his innately sincere vocals and painfully honest lyrics. He has the kind of voice that could cut through any amount of noise, not by using volume but honesty. Even when he's fed through Auto-Tune, you know he's telling you the truth all the time. On songs like the lead single "We Are Young" or the rollicking "All Alone," he provides a very human core that grounds things even as the music builds to ornate crescendos. Indeed, the album is really, really big sounding and could easily have ended up collapsing under its own weight and pretension, but the opposite happens and Some Nights takes flight instead. The songs are both anthemic and human-sized, the heartfelt words and naked emotions are never buried, and the music is uplifting, not overpowering. The trio has crafted a record that measures up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy musically and delivers enough emotional charge to power a small town for a month. It's an impressive achievement and Fun. deserves every bit of acclaim that comes its way because of it.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Overexposed

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

-- Justin Farrar, Google Play

Transit Of Venus

Three Days Grace
Open and more intricate, Transit of Venus, the fourth album from Canadian rockers Three Days Grace, finds them elevating their driving sound into something altogether more refined than anything they've done before. While "nuanced" probably isn't a term that people would normally associate with the hard rock outfit, it feels like an oddly appropriate descriptor for the direction Three Days Grace have taken their sound, setting aside some of the larger-than-life crunch of some of their earlier work to add a level of atmosphere that gives the band the opportunity to stick out from the post-grunge pack. While Transit of Venus certainly has its fair share of fist-pumping anthems, the album is most interesting when the band is finding new inroads to heaviness. Rather than always depending on the guitars' familiar crunch, tracks like "Chalk Outline" and "The High Road" utilize the buzz of droning synths to add a layer of molasses-like thickness to the songs that makes them stand out from the band's guitar-heavy work without feeling so radically different that fans won't know what to make of them. Even when Three Days Grace stick closer to what they've done in the past, a song like album opener "Sign of the Times" shows the band experimenting with atmosphere, scaling back the guitars to let the song breathe a little bit, providing the song with the space necessary to be more, well, spacious. Despite all of this sonic tinkering, the band still manages to insert plenty of those fist-pumping, arena-ready moments into Transit of Venus, providing a familiar landmark to keep fans from getting lost, while also providing the album with enough old-fashioned riffage to show that Three Days Grace haven't given up on rock.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Based On A T.R.U. Story

2 Chainz
Based on a T.R.U. Story comes at the peak of an unprecedented second career act. Atlanta's 2 Chainz, formerly known as Tity Boy, stumbled around the rap industry for more than a decade prior—as a Ludacris sidekick and a member of the under-appreciated duo Playaz Circle—before making a sudden and steep rise to ubiquity by way of freebie mixtapes. His solo debut is a work of distilled arrogance from a rapper with a very specific skill set. The story is a familiar one: drug dealer turns rapper, raps about the money and women that come from both, and the message is delivered mostly through smirkingly simplistic puns and an exasperated flow that burrows itself into listeners' brains via blunt repetition. But while 2 Chainz's rhyme style is firmly defined, he's yet to find similar footing sonically. Instead, Based on a T.R.U. Story jumps erratically around established post-millennial rap production tropes—from the quiet storm spaciness of Drake to the aggressive trap romps of Rick Ross.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1

Lupe Fiasco
For all the artist-label snags Lasers hit prior to its birth, the album topped the Billboard 200, while one of its singles, "The Show Goes On," became Lupe Fiasco's second Top Ten Hot 100 hit. As that album was in limbo, Fiasco began working on his confusingly titled fourth album, a 69-minute "part one" of a sequel to his 2006 debut. It's most certainly not a Lasers sequel. There's no obvious attempt to repeat earlier pop chart successes, and its introduction is indicative, similar to that of 2007's elaborately conceptual The Cool, with Fiasco's sister Ayesha Jaco contributing some more of her commanding poetry. Released only a year and a half after Lasers, the album was likely met with fewer label-related issues, but each one of its first three singles stirred up some controversy. "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" uses the indelible beat from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," considered by many hip-hop fans to be untouchable for its emotional relevance and classic stature. Pete Rock himself objected vehemently, and that conflict was resolved, but the beat is a bad match for the MC's angered, if piercingly focused and thoughtful, rhymes. On "Bitch Bad," Fiasco takes a characteristically authoritarian stance on misogyny. The order of the second and third nouns in the hook -- "Bitch bad/Woman good/Lady better/They misunderstood" -- is one of its many debatable issues. As with many of his songs, the lyrical value (clever, cerebral) is far greater than the musical value (sluggish, meandering). It's much more about delivering a message and provoking debate than replays. For the third single, "Lamborghini Angels," Fiasco is at his detailed and focused best, combining surreal imagery and grim non-fiction over a brilliantly tense beat from Mr. Inkredible. Through this song, the MC covers behavioral programming, child sexual abuse, and Afghan civilian murders in a graphic manner. Don't expect a party. Don't expect to appreciate each method he uses to relay his viewpoints. One can at least appreciate, or at least respect, a rapper capable of dropping an absolute stinger like "But my tone was like a Afghani, killed without a home, blew that bitch up with a drone" like it's nothing.

R.E.D.

Ne-Yo
"The image I portray be making people judge a book," confesses Ne-Yo on "Cracks in Mr. Perfect," the opening track from his fifth album. It's a red herring. Despite his protestations, Ne-Yo still coasts on his reputation as a classy good guy. The dance-pop hit "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)" is graceful and light, his vocals recalling Michael Jackson in his Off the Wall prime. While "Let Me Love You" aims for the clubs, "Be the One" and "Stress Reliever" are bedroom ballads with slight electronic twists reminiscent of Usher's "Climax." If R.E.D. is ultimately flawed, it's because Ne-Yo is so tasteful that his songs often sound bland. He may not want to turn himself into another oversexed lothario, but it's those qualities that often make current R&B memorable.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Believe

Justin Bieber
Hit single "Boyfriend" pushed 18-year-old Justin Bieber toward manhood with its sexy, moody sound, though the actual tone of Believe is set by the album's opening track, the club-ready "All Around the World," featuring Ludacris. The electro dance vibe continues on "As Long as You Love Me," featuring Big Sean, and "Beauty and a Beat" with Nicki Minaj. On the titular inspirational arena anthem, Bieber belts out his appreciation for his loyal fans backed by a choir, while on "Fall" he persuades a hesitant love to open her heart because "you can't fly unless you let yourself fall."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Tuskegee

Lionel Richie
Initially, Lionel Richie might not seem like the most likely candidate for a country album, but don't forget that the former Commodore is also the man who penned "Lady," Kenny Rogers' biggest solo single ever—and, as the album title implies, Richie heard his share of country growing up in Alabama in the '50s and '60s. Richie shared the spotlight with Akon and Ne-Yo on his last album, but here he duets with Nashville A-listers old and new, taking his own pop and R&B classics down a country road. Steel guitar and some husky interjections from Jason Aldean don't hurt "Say You, Say Me" a bit, while Willie Nelson ambles into "Easy" like it was written for him. Richie even gets his chance to chime in with Kenny on a revamped "Lady."

Jim Allen, Google Play

Red River Blue (Deluxe)

Blake Shelton
Back in 2010, Blake Shelton and the shrewd A&R department at Warner Nashville gambled with a new format, releasing Shelton's singles, "Hillbilly Bone" and "All About Tonight," as separate "six pack" EPs (five other tracks filled each of them out, creating one full-length album in two installments). It paid off. Both singles were hits, and fans bought the EPs in droves. Shelton, producer Scott Hendricks, and Warner wasted no time following them up. In early 2011, Shelton was back with "Honey Bee," a single that hit the number one spot on both the Billboard and Mediabase country charts within seven weeks. It became the fastest-selling download single by a male country artist to earn a gold certification; it eventually went platinum. Shelton and Hendricks were caught by surprise with the success of the single, because they had only half an album finished. They were given two weeks to complete the rest. In the meantime, Warner followed "Honey Bee" with another album track: a rocked-up cover of contemporary Christian music songwriter Dave Barnes' "God Gave Me You." The 11-song Red River Blue reflects that rush of energy; while it never sounds panicked, it does feel just a tad rough around the edges in terms of song choices. The music is almost pure contemporary honky tonk with some balanced material woven in. Basslines are elevated in the combination love song/party anthem "Ready to Roll," while the spirit of Jerry Jeff Walker is evoked on "Get Some" (with backing vocals by Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride). "Good Ole Boys" sounds exactly like its title, and pays tribute -- intentionally or not -- to Hank Williams, Jr.'s rockist brand of country. The other tunes tunes include the summery, midtempo shuffle that is "Drink on It," and the ballads "I'm Sorry" and "Over," both of which contain tension-built-to-crescendo bridges. The album's title track closes the set, and follows "Hey," an overly formulaic rowdy party anthem. The song "Red River Blue" is Shelton at his most uncharacteristically tender. It's a broken love song fueled by accordion, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. There's enough pedal steel to take the human heart and wrench it around before Lambert's backing vocals kick in and the tune goes over the edge into tearsville. For Shelton's fans, this is a whole helping of what you like best, and it's carefully formulated to be exactly that.

Uncaged

Zac Brown Band

Looking 4 Myself

Usher
Two decades into a career of consistent hits, Usher explores and expands on his seventh studio album. Dabbling in various trends, from dubstep ("I Care for U") to trance pop (Swedish House Mafia-produced "Euphoria" and "Numb"), Usher is at his finest when he sticks to his signature R&B pop. His falsetto flies high on the sexy ballad "Dive" and lead single "Climax," possibly his best song to date. The Neptunes help boogie the blues away on retro soul jam "Twisted" featuring Pharrell. Backed by dreamy synths, "What Happened to U" captures the heartthrob's dilemma of having it all—"money, clothes, fancy cars/ big ol' cribs, platinum on the walls/ seven Grammys, sold out concerts, damn, I've been workin' hard"—yet longing for that special someone to share in his success.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Pink Friday... Roman Reloaded

Nicki Minaj
Left to her own devices, Nicki Minaj is undoubtedly one of rap's leading experimentalists. The opening six tracks of her sophomore album are mad scientist-brilliant, an unhinged machine gun spray of gender-confused, theatrical growls set to spastic layers of hopscotch rhythms. And then, ever so abruptly, the record resets itself as an act of pop conservatism as Nicki morphs into a Rihanna-like, Auto-Tuned cipher in the hands of chart-stomping producers like Red One (who's worked with Lady Gaga) and Dr. Luke (Katy Perry). Their europop formulas will certainly spin off a few radio hits but it's hard to view those as anything but underwhelming in the wake of the album's revolutionary first third. Roman Reloaded is a frustrating split screen of pop's beautifully twisted future and its increasingly dull present.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Dreams and Nightmares

Meek Mill

Fórmula Vol. 1

Romeo Santos
Formula, Vol. 1, the debut offering by Anthony "Romeo" Santos, former lead vocalist for Aventura, was preceded by two hit singles. First was the easy summertime groove of "You," followed by "Promise," a shimmering duet with Usher. Both tracks hit the top spot on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs and Tropical Songs charts. On this 15-track full-length set, Santos offers proof that the singles were merely teasers. Kept mainly to slow to midtempo ballads -- all of which he wrote or co-wrote -- Santos and his slippery tenor cross bachata, nuevo flamenco, and merengue, melded with just enough contemporary R&B, to create an intoxicating brew. Other standouts include "Soberbio," "La Bella y la Bestia," and "All Aboard," in collaboration with Lil Wayne.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Making Mirrors

Gotye
Stepping out from behind the piano/drums of Melbourne indie pop three-piece the Basics for the third time, Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist Wally De Backer, aka Gotye's first solo record in five years, Making Mirrors, reveals a love of the '80s pop scene, which extends far beyond the usual influences of the current nu-synth brigade. The hugely experimental follow-up to 2006's Like Drawing Blood doesn't discriminate against other decades, as evident on the impossibly uplifting '60s retro soul of "I Feel Better," the '70s West Coast harmonies of the ethereal lullaby-like closer "Bronte," the '90s Beck-esque scuzzy garage rock of "Easy Way Out," and the 2000s hushed, claustrophobic dubstep of "Don't Worry, We'll Be Watching You." But seemingly unaffected by the constant comparisons with the likes of Sting and Peter Gabriel, it's the era of early new wave, dub, and worldbeat which defines its 12 tracks. Unexpected chart-topper "Somebody That I Used to Know," a collaboration with New Zealand vocalist Kimbra, is an oddball break-up song whose stuttering rhythms, reggae hooks, and hushed vocals sound like the Police as remixed by the XX, "Smoke and Mirrors" echoes the avant-garde pop of Gabriel's So, with its pounding tribal drums, orchestral flourishes, and new age melodies, while there are also nods to George Michael's "Faith" on the acoustic gospel-pop of "In Your Light"; the impassioned Aussie rock of Midnight Oil on the ecologically themed "Eyes Wide Open," and electro pioneer Thomas Dolby on the strange, vocodered vocals, spoken word samples, and skank guitars of the trippy "State of the Art." Familiar they may be, but some credit has to go to De Backer for managing to weave these eclectic retro sounds into a cohesive affair, which proves that along with recent efforts by Art vs. Science and Architecture in Helsinki, Australia is fast becoming one of the biggest purveyors of quality experimental pop.

Jon O'Brien, Rovi

Lace Up

MGK
Though Cleveland rapper MGK built his grassroots following around a very specific brand of post-punk and pre-packaged rebellion, his debut album is a more scattered affair. Essentially, Lace Up is a series of genre studies in contemporary hip-hop that bounce from Roscoe Dash-style, sing-along swag rap to riotous Waka Flocka-inspired club bangers through Alex Da Kid-produced radio-friendly emo-pop tracks. While MGK's reasonably comfortable in tracing these steps, he's at his best when echoing the tightly-woven, blue collar gothic lyricism of fellow trailer park chic rapper Yelawolf. For all his bluster, MGK's greatest skills lie in his simple storytelling.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Hot Cakes

The Darkness

Chapter V

Trey Songz

Careless World: Rise Of The Last King

Tyga
Tyga's Careless World: Rise of the Last King fits snugly into the glaringly ostentatious, "look at me, I'm famous" pop-rap subgenre created by Big Sean, Drake and a growing chorus of others. Oddly, Tyga even sounds and raps like Drake on many of these tracks; and when he pairs with Big Sean for "I'm Gone," it's difficult to separate their voices apart. (FYI, Big Sean gets the last verse.) More promisingly, he wrings the last drops out of the swag/jerkin' phenomenon with the radio hit "Rack City," and, in "Lay You Down," turns in an effective pop ballad about growing up in a gang-ridden area of Compton, though the latter is truly defined by an outstanding chorus from D.A. Wallach of indie pop band Chester French. Other guests like Nas, Wale, Nicki Minaj, Robin Thicke and J. Cole turn up to help Tyga turn Careless World into an intermittently successful second album.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

God Forgives, I Don't

Rick Ross
With 2009's Deeper Than Rap, Rick Ross' sophisticated-but-hardcore quiet storm approach firmly established the rotund Miami performer as street rap's preeminent superstar. So it's no surprise that he's still sticking to the same script on his fifth album, God Forgives, I Don't. Over triumphant, brass-heavy soul loops and low-end thumps, he barks and wheezes about the mechanics and rewards of his wholly imagined criminal empire. He threatens death and basks in his own life of luxury while heavyweight guests—Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Outkast's Andre 3000—fill the space in between. The returns have diminished, naturally, but not nearly as much as one might expect. Ross' well-polished narcissism remains oddly engaging.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Kanye West Presents Good Music Cruel Summer

Various Artists
Kicking off with R. Kelly doing vocal gymnastics over the most polished and professional of Pop Wansel beats, Cruel Summer is a mistitled fireworks show from Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music label/roster/empire, one that comes off as mixtape-minded follow-up to his flossy Jay-Z team-up Watch the Throne. Big difference here is that the arrogance canon isn't aimed at anything particular, as West and company put their middle finger up "To the World," because those shoes are just so damn stylish you don't need a reason to tolerate anyone, anywhere, anytime. When Kanye mentions strolling into the Def Jam office and asking for another fifty million because he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, it isn't a connectable moment in the least, and as "Mercy.1" steals the listener's girlfriend for a hand job in the Lamborghini, it's hard not classify this as baller party for the "We Are the 1%" set, but anyone who can look past the vapid and still dream wetly about Kardashians or Giuseppe Zanotti shoes can latch onto this hypebeast and ride. "Mercy.1"'s ridiculously good hook, plus its thrill-ride construction from producer Lifted, is reason enough to forgive all the bling and its glare, and as new folks like Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Chief Keef mix with vets like Ghostface Killah, Common, Raekwon, and returning champ Jay-Z, the album has something for every thug all while West supplies the wicked laughs ("Mitt Romney don't pay no taxes," "MDMA party starts melting like Dali," and so on). Detractors have all the ammo they need as Chief Keef's homegrown hit "Don't Like.1" closes the album like a tacked-on bonus track, getting picked up off the streets and taught how to talk like a boss by West, Jadakiss, and friends. Still, it's a killer single both before and after the G.O.O.D. Music treatment, and one that caps off an album that's like the best bottle service you ever had. Anyone who thought Watch the Throne just wasn't Rick Ross-y enough will agree.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Bad

Michael Jackson
The downside to a success like Thriller is that it's nearly impossible to follow, but Michael Jackson approached Bad much the same way he approached Thriller -- take the basic formula of the predecessor, expand it slightly, and move it outward. This meant that he moved deeper into hard rock, deeper into schmaltzy adult contemporary, deeper into hard dance -- essentially taking each portion of Thriller to an extreme, while increasing the quotient of immaculate studiocraft. He wound up with a sleeker, slicker Thriller, which isn't a bad thing, but it's not a rousing success, either. For one thing, the material just isn't as good. Look at the singles: only three can stand alongside album tracks from its predecessor ("Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You"), another is simply OK ("Smooth Criminal"), with the other two showcasing Jackson at his worst (the saccharine "Man in the Mirror," the misogynistic "Dirty Diana"). Then, there are the album tracks themselves, something that virtually didn't exist on Thriller but bog down Bad not just because they're bad, but because they reveal that Jackson's state of the art is not hip. And they constitute a near-fatal dead spot on the record -- songs three through six, from "Speed Demon" to "Another Part of Me," a sequence that's utterly faceless, lacking memorable hooks and melodies, even when Stevie Wonder steps in for "Just Good Friends," relying on nothing but studiocraft. Part of the joy of Off the Wall and Thriller was that craft was enhanced with tremendous songs, performances, and fresh, vivacious beats. For this dreadful stretch, everything is mechanical, and while the album rebounds with songs that prove mechanical can be tolerable if delivered with hooks and panache, it still makes Bad feel like an artifact of its time instead a piece of music that transcends it. And if that wasn't evident proof that Jackson was losing touch, consider this -- the best song on the album is "Leave Me Alone" (why are all of his best songs paranoid anthems?), a tune tacked on to the end of the CD and never released as a single, apart from a weirdly claustrophobic video that, not coincidentally, was the best video from the album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Fiona Apple
Right from the poetic but inconveniently long title, Fiona Apple's first album after a seven-year hiatus announces that, whatever has happened in those years, Apple remains a willfully defiant and singularly fascinating artist. One noticeable change is in her voice: always a supple, impressive instrument, it has taken on a smoother, smokier tone with age. Apple works with drummer and multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton, but their arrangements are pleasingly open and sparse, allowing Apple's voice—cracking, howling, always coming back to a deceptively calm tone—to do the heavy emotional lifting, of which it's more than capable. The album's title references subtle mechanical devices meant to mend and maintain, and its songs reflect the slow struggles and sustaining joys of finding those things—whether personal connection or individual strength—that keep us going in our own lives.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Born To Die

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is a femme fatale with a smoky voice, a languorous image, and a modeling contract. Not coincidentally, she didn't lack for attention leading up to the release of her Interscope debut, Born to Die. The hype began in mid-2011 with a stunning song and video for "Video Games," and it kept on rising, right up to her January 2012 performance on "Saturday Night Live" (making her the first artist since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 to perform on "SNL" without an album available). Although it's easy to see why Del Rey got her contract, it's also easy to hear: her songwriting skills and her bewitching voice. "Video Games" is a beautiful song, calling to mind Fiona Apple to Anna Calvi as she recounts another variation on the age-old trope of female-as-sex-object. Her vacant, tired reading of the song rescues it from any hint of exploitation, making it a winner. [The Paradise Edition added a second CD for a total of 23 tracks.]

Life Is Good

Nas
Nas' gift and his curse has always been an abundance of ideas. Like every effort since his masterpiece debut Illmatic, Life Is Good—his tenth album—suffers from a violent lack of focus and an abundance of ideas that only occasionally gel thematically or sonically. The political intermingles sloppily with the personal and hard breakbeats get buried under the clutter of symphony orchestras. It's only when his producers give him some breathing room, stripping hip-hop down to its barest elements of little more than just a loop and a rhyme, on tracks like "Loco-Motive" and "Reach Out," that Nas is able to approach the glory of his early work. When he does, the flashes of brilliance still shine brightly, through artful turns of phrase like "sinister n**gas snicker through yellow teeth/ alcohol aging my n**gas faster than felonies."

-- Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Unbroken

Demi Lovato

Write Me Back

R. Kelly
Following the release of the retro-fitted Love Letter and evidently successful emergency throat surgery, R. Kelly was due for another abrupt turn with Black Panties, an album promised to continue in the vein of the classic 1993 album 12 Play. Instead, Kelly opted to prolong the nostalgia for older rhythm & blues. Write Me Back is a sequel to Love Letter, and while it does not beam as much excellence, it quickly deflects any preconceived idea that it might consist of scraps from the earlier album's sessions. Kelly's inspirations are occasionally obvious. "Love Is" and "Share My Love," the bookends of the album's standard edition, bleed the elegant, gentlemanly soul-disco of the Philadelphia International label -- Teddy Pendergrass' '70s work with and without Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in particular. "Green Light" recalls the sensual, feather-light touch of '70s Isley Brothers ballads like "Voyage to Atlantis." "Fool for You" is pure, sly Smokey Robinson. "You Are My World," originally written for Michael Jackson, turns out to be more of an overt MJ tribute -- from quotes to grunts -- than anything recorded by Ne-Yo. When Kelly takes it back to the early '60s, as he does on the feel-good "All Rounds on Me" and "Party Jumpin'," the results are less natural sounding. Other songs, such as the smooth gliding trio of "Feelin' Single," "Lady Sunday," and "Believe That It's So," are akin to Kelly circa 2003/2004. While he might be recycling himself on these and a couple other numbers, there's too much warmth and joy to be rejective. If anything, Write Me Back proves that Kelly's mode throughout Love Letter was no fluke. It's apparent that he can be retro and urbane as instinctively as he can be cutting edge and filthy.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

2012 Grammy Nominees

Various Artists
This collection from Universal features 22 cuts from the 2012 Grammy nominees, and covers a myriad of styles and award categories like Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Country Album, and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Highlights include British vocal powerhouse Adele ("Rolling in the Deep"), dubstep newcomer Skrillex ("Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites"), bearded hard rockers Foo Fighters ("Walk"), country-pop giants Taylor Swift ("Siren") and Lady Antebellum ("Just a Kiss"), indie folk hitmakers Bon Iver ("Holocene") and Mumford & Sons ("The Cave"), and stadium rock veterans Coldplay ("Paradise").

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

Battle Born

The Killers
The Killers' 2004's debut Hot Fuss and 2006 follow-up Sam's Town—their best and most career-defining works—came with a sound clearly dated to the 1980s, mining foppish new wave on the former record and letting in Springsteen-ian Americana on the latter. Fourth album Battle Born suggests that in the four years since their last release, that clock hasn't advanced a minute. Their songs still swell with grand arena rock ambition, riding glassy synth leads into crescendos of guitar, and Brandon Flowers' lyrics still go for broad, broken-hearted melodrama, their occasional clunkiness carried by his clear and capable singing voice. The most successful tracks here might be hidden in the album's final half, as with the appropriately looming yet elevating "The Rising Tide" or the muted "Sweet Jane"-ish guitar strums of "Heart of a Girl."

Eric Grandy, Google Play

365 Días

Los Tucanes De Tijuana
"Amor Compartido," the first single from 365 Días, lays bare the frustration of getting involved with someone who's married. Its quick rise on the regional Mexican charts yet again proves Norteño legends Los Tucanes de Tijuana's knack for relating to audiences with spicy stories of common romantic dilemmas. The band's composer and lead singer Mario Quintero knows how to write an irresistible title and a catchy song. "Salió del Closet" ("He Came Out of the Closet") and "Soltero y Con Dinero" ("Single and With Money") are among the 18 plain-talking ballads and bouncing banda dance tunes on this album, which is Los Tucanes' 33rd.

Judy Cantor-Navas, Google Play

Two Eleven

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

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Sticks & Stones

Cher Lloyd
On British singer/rapper Cher Lloyd's U.S. debut, radio-friendly teen pop meets playful street sass. The former X Factor contestant's breakout single "Swagger Jagger" and the platinum-selling "Want U Back" are featured here, along with "Oath," an anthem honoring unconditional friendship featuring fellow Simon Cowell teen rap protégé Becky G. "Grow Up" is a bubblegum rap tune featuring Busta Rhymes, while "Playa Boi" is an audacious remake of Neneh Cherry's hit "Buffalo Stance." The album title, Sticks & Stones, embodies Lloyd's sensibility; say what you want about her artistry, she's climbing the charts regardless.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

A Different Kind Of Truth

Van Halen
David Lee Roth returns as frontman for Van Halen, with songs that are scraps from the collective's late '70s glory days. This, of course, has caused some serious debate amongst die-hard fans, but once they get that first taste of old VH licks, they're happy there's more to come. Album opener "Tattoo" misdirects with its straight-ahead radio rock feel, but then there's the 1976 demo itself, "She's the Woman," rejiggered to see the light of day in 2012. Songs like "China Town," "You and Your Blues" and "Bullethead" justly convey Eddie's signature guitar tones and shreds in a structure that's purely classic VH. Roth's signature vox may be a little worse for wear, but his choruses will stick in your head long after the songs are over.

Jen Guyre, Google Play

Handwritten

The Gaslight Anthem
Always seeming to be tinkering with their sound, the Gaslight Anthem seek a nice balance between heart and drive on their fourth album, Handwritten. With a sound that splits the difference between the more punk-influenced The '59 Sound and the rootsy earnestness of American Slang, the album finds the band returning with a sound that feels altogether more complete than its other work. It feels like the Gaslight Anthem have reached some new evolutionary stage in their growth, bringing together all of their influences into a sound that's more distinctly theirs. While there are still the strong overtones of Springsteen and Social Distortion present on Handwritten, it feels like the Gaslight Anthem have figured out how to adapt those sonic touchstones into a sound that, though familiar, is their own. Changes aside, what feels more important with a group like the Gaslight Anthem are the things that are the same. Handwritten is still possessed of the same grit and earnestness that have become staple weapons in their musical arsenal. Songs like "'45'" and "Howl" easily evoke summertime in the heartland with their wistful warmth and bittersweetness. Though the cover of Nirvana's "Sliver," which is faithfully executed with Brian Fallon doing his best (and, most surprisingly, accurate) Cobain impression, feels a bit out of place on the album, as a whole Handwritten has all of the heart-on-rolled-up-sleeve passion that makes the Gaslight Anthem a band that is so easy to love and identify with.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Don Omar Presents MTO2: New Generation

Don Omar
Don Omar continues to lead the evolution of Latin dance music with Meet the Orphans 2: New Generation. Like the first MTO, which included the international phenomenon "Danza Kuduro," this album features tracks by Omar along with chart-friendly songs by several protégés, like Syko, whose "Flor de Campo" has the urban tropical dance-pop sound that's been Don Omar's formula for success. Omar lays it down himself on the opening track, "Hasta Que Salga El Sol," which, like the rest of MTO2, inspires spontaneous body movement. Similarly, the self-explanatory "Zumba" is tailor-made for that Latin athletic workout. Omar also brings Puerto Rican barrio flavor to a Spanish version of "Dutty Love," with Natti Natasha, a highlight here. It's another leap forward for the Don: The music is synthetic and explosive, yet still connected to the streets that made him the King of Reggaeton.

–Judy Cantor-Navas, Google Play

The MF Life

Melanie Fiona
The follow up to Melanie Fiona's 2009 debut The Bridge and her 2011 Grammy-winning duet "Fool for You" with Cee Lo, The MF Life is dense with rich vocals, heartache, empowerment and vintage soul. On the lead single "4 AM," the Canadian songstress waits restlessly for a cheating lover to come home. Later, on "6 AM," T-Pain plays the guilty guy from "4 AM," singing his defense after a drunken night. An argument ensues to the tune of a real-deal R&B duet. This authenticity permeates the album, which features cameos from J. Cole, Nas, B.o.B., and John Legend. On the bewildered plea "Wrong Side of the Love Song," Fiona finds herself on love's losing end, while "Bones" is a shameless jam about getting to the core—"straight through your skin, past your soul to your bones/ further inside you than you've ever known."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 And Beyond

Various Artists
One of the biggest signs that the team bringing Suzanne Collins' violent, riveting young adult book series "The Hunger Games" to the big screen was headed in the right direction was the choice of T-Bone Burnett as the soundtrack's producer. He did an award-winning job of bringing old-timey music to vibrant life for the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and here he helps make sure that the music captures the series' places and themes as vividly as possible. "The Hunger Games"' story takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America reorganized into 12 districts that serve a decadent, corrupt capital and must sacrifice two children each year to a nationally televised fight to the death. Moody heroine Katniss Everdeen hails from coal-mining District 12, and there's a strong Appalachian bent to steely laments like the Punch Brothers' "Dark Days," the Civil Wars' "Kingdom Come," and honeyed lullabies such as Secret Sisters' "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" and Neko Case's "Nothing to Remember." Meanwhile, rock and rap embody the dread and terror of the games and the arrogance of the forces behind them. Arcade Fire open the soundtrack with the marvelously tense "Abraham's Daughter"; the Decemberists and Glen Hansard go in for the kill with "One Engine" and "Take the Heartland," respectively, and Kid Cudi channels the doom surrounding the games with "The Ruler and the Killer." Other songs reveal just how carefully Collins' text was treated in this part of bringing it to film: daughters and fathers (or the lack thereof) is a significant theme within the story, and Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Daughter's Lament" and "Run Daddy Run" by Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies reflect it ably. However, the song most crucial to the book is "Safe & Sound," a soothing but sad lullaby repeated at key moments in the story. Fortunately, it's done justice by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars, who give a reassuring warmth to its potentially eerie lyrics. The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond would be an impressive collection even if it weren't associated with one of 2012's most anticipated films, but the care put into the soundtrack makes it an experience that much richer for fans of the books, the movie, and any of the artists here.

Heather Phares, Rovi

The Wanted (Special Edition)

The Wanted
British-Irish quintet The Wanted add momentum to the boy band invasion with their self-titled Stateside debut. Compiled from their first two UK releases, the seven-track EP and 10-track Special Edition both feature breakout hits "All Time Low" and "Glad You Came," an irresistible dance-pop anthem. "Heart Vacancy" harmonizes about fighting for a heart with "don't disturb" on it, while "Gold Forever" muses about preserving memories of the present moment: "We could rule the world someday, somehow/ but we'll never be as bright as we are now."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Irreversible... 2012

La Arrolladora Banda El Limón De Rene Camacho
Coming off a Grammy win for Best Banda Album 2011 for Todo Depende de Tí, La Arrolladora Banda el Limón returned with Irreversible... 2012, an effort that finds them comfortable at the top, but not complacent. All the heart poured into the post-broken relationship hit "Llamada de Mi Ex" is a sure sign of that, while the follow-up single "No Me Vengas a Decir" is a break-up in progress, still simmering with as much passion as pain. Three songs from "cantautor del pueblo” Espinoza Paz round out the album, along with some dance numbers and rancheros, making for another strong entry in the group's catalog, which has been on the upswing since signing with the Disa label in 2002.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Up All Night

Kip Moore
No one in country music ever went wrong singing about trucks, and that's exactly how Georgia boy Kip Moore made his way to the upper rungs of the charts, scoring high with his single "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" before he even had an album out. On his full-length debut, we can hear Moore's musical personality more fully fleshed out, and, among other things, Up All Night is an excellent illustration of the degree to which '70s/'80s heartland rock has informed modern-day country. Moore—who co-wrote every song on the album—makes it clear he's a stone-cold country boy with the lyrics in songs like "Beer Money," "Reckless (Still Growin' Up)," and the aforementioned truck track. But musically, once you take away the occasional pedal steel, there's little here that would sound out of place on a classic Bob Seger album, which is no liability whichever side of the rock/country fence you occupy.

Jim Allen, Google Play

¡UNO!

Green Day
Green Day's new millennium elevation to Very Important Band is so complete that when they decided to return to their frivolous punk roots they couldn't do it in a small way. They started to knock out a bunch of garage punk tunes and wound up with not one but "three" collections of punk-pop: a trilogy entitled ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré!, each released within a couple months of one another. For as many passing references to the Clash as there are on ¡Uno! -- musical and lyrical, with the opening "Nuclear Family" alluding to the riff of "Safe European Home" and "Rusty James" talking about the "last gang in town" -- this is no Sandinista!, as it finds Green Day shrinking their world, not expanding it. This is all power pop and three-chord rockers, the tempo insistent and the hooks spiky and sharp; the only time things let up is at the end with "Oh Love," an arena filler so indebted to the Who that Billie Joe Armstrong winds up referencing "Love Reign O'er Me." Even then, the sound is big, crisp, and clean, as it is throughout ¡Uno!, and that clarity undercuts some of the punkiness of Green Day's intentions. Compared to their busman's holiday Foxboro Hot Tubs, ¡Uno! seems well-pressed and tidy, every note and every rhythm in its right place, and while that inspired recklessness is missed, this brisk, cheerful collection of pop is a relief after the operatic ambitions of 21st Century Breakdown. The hooks fly furiously, the attack is precise -- so precise that the mock dance-rock of "Kill the DJ" almost plays like a Xerox of Franz Ferdinand (it also is the one explicitly political song here, as if the trio members wanted to hide their intentions) -- and the hooks, in both the melodies and riffs, are so huge, they gleefully bludgeon doubters into blissful submission. It's the work not of punks but of road warriors eager to have a new batch of crowd-pleasers out on tour.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Midsummer Station

Owl City
Following up on his 2009 breakthrough hit "Fireflies," Owl City's fourth album is aimed directly at the mainstream. The saccharine lead single "Good Time," featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, serves as a warning that fans will not find the dreamy synthpop of Owl City's past on The Midsummer Station. Radio-friendly pop jingles prevail, with traces of Adam Young's original artistry found on "Dementia" (featuring Blink-182's Mark Hoppus), and the emotional piano ballad "Silhouette." The forlorn chorus ponders, "I'm a silhouette asking every now and then/ Is it over yet? Will I ever love again?... But the more I try to move on, the more I feel alone/ so I watch the summer stars to lead me home"—a reminder of the poetic lyrics Young is capable of delivering as he heads in a new direction.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Strangeland

Keane
Following the minor '80s-inspired synth-pop digressions of 2008's Perfect Symmetry, Keane's fourth album Strangeland finds them returning, despite its title, to more familiar, steadier territory. Theirs is the realm of the big, broadly-reaching piano ballad, and they reclaim it repeatedly here—and with unflagging gusto. Vocalist Tom Chaplin never merely sings when a soaring delivery of his vaguely inspirational or romantic lyrics will do—think U2 channeled through The Killers—and the band's keys keep up by giving the balladry a little energizing lilt. Where Symmetry started off daring and then grew calm, Strangeland saves the relatively adventurous tracks for its back half—notably "Black Rain," which apes Radiohead rather than Coldplay with its canned drum machine beat, muffled synth currents, and falsetto vocals.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Home Again

Michael Kiwanuka

The Lateness Of The Hour

Alex Clare
In another age, Londoner Alex Clare might have found his soulful tones backed by shimmering strings or woozy trip-hop. Appearing in the year it does, however, it seems inevitable that his debut album would be powered by a very 2012 sound: dubstep. Luckily, in employing producers Major Lazer, he's working with some of the best. Diplo and Switch turn the sparse 'Sanctuary' into that hitherto unimaginable thing, a dubstep ballad, while an audacious cover of Prince's 'When Doves Cry' deploys junglist drums and dark, looming bass with an ear for maximum drama.

Louis Pattison, Google Play

Tr3s Presents Juanes MTV Unplugged

Juanes
Colombian rocker Juanes was propelled from Medellín's metal scene to international stardom in the wake of the U.S. Latin pop explosion of the 1990s, and his radio-friendly songs, as catchy as they are, have maintained an appealingly hard edge. He might have been expected to dig in to his rock roots for his first MTV Unplugged, recorded for the network's bilingual channel Tr3s. But this Unplugged has a bigger sound than most of Juanes' studio recordings. Helmed by Grammy-winning tropical artist and music director Juan Luis Guerra, it's pure big-band Latin pop, featuring guest vocalists, horns and strings sections, traditional Latin American instruments and even a 32-person choir. "Me Enamora," a hit from Juanes' album La Vida es un Ratico, is punctuated by a brass section, trading the intense percussion-heavy vibe of the original version for a soaring euphoric sound. New song "La Señal" is tinged with likeable tropical dance grooves. Rock ballad "Hoy Me Voy" is performed here as a bilingual bossa nova with Brazilian singer Paula Fernandes. Juanes' songwriting is strong enough to stand up to these splashier arrangements, but don't expect to find much of the broodier singer-songwriter side of Juanes at this party. The album sounds like just what you'd expect from a Latin pop idol.

Judy Cantor-Navas, Google Play

Live From The Underground

Big Krit
Every iteration of rap eventually finds its revivalists and '90s Southern Rap has finally has one in Big Krit. The Mississippi rapper/producer spends most of his debut trying to resurrect the soulful sensibility of legends like Eightball & MJG, Outkast and UGK, whose Pimp C appears to be the direct blueprint for Krit's snarl. He never quite manages to transcend these influences, as he lacks both the personality and personal insight that propelled them. Still, his knack for bluesy, emotive and trunk rattling productions is usually enough to compensate. He may be a nostalgia act but at least he's a well polished one.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

The Lion The Beast The Beat

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Grace Potter has slowly built up a rabid fanbase through her incendiary live shows and is now ready for a major crossover push. With this 2012 release, producer Jim Scott and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach help balance things between swampy blues swagger and clean AOR rock crunch (think of Stevie Nicks moving into the bayou or a clean and sober Janis Joplin, adding in Joan Jett's glitter drums). There's plenty of diversity here (including the '80s-style power ballad "One Heart Missing") and Potter's band the Nocturnals are wisely allowed to stay on the attack. The bonus cuts match Potter with country friends Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney, proving it isn't just rock, blues and soul that she can handle. If anyone tries to tell you they don't make ‘em like they used to, just play them The Lion The Beast The Beat.

Nick Dedina, Google Play

Total Loss

How To Dress Well
On his second How to Dress Well album Total Loss, Tom Krell abandons much of the murky mystery of his debut, Love Remains, undescoring the R&B roots of his music. "When I Was in Trouble" introduces Krell's new aesthetic, bathing his falsetto vocals -- now freed of the static and distortion that cloaked them on his debut -- in electronics that manage to be gloomy and glowing at the same time; on "Struggle," reverb surrounds his voice like a halo. Letting his more-or-less naked vocal stand out so clearly offers an entirely different kind of vulnerability than the one he displayed on Love Remains, but How to Dress Well still works best when Krell favors the more ethereal side of his music, blurring together his influences into something unique. He does this especially well on the fittingly frosty "Cold Nites," which grows from clacking typewriters into a surprisingly epic lament; "Say My Name or Say Whatever," with its dreamy spoken word passages and blurry synths, is one of the more logical progressions from Love Remains' mystique. Similarly, "Running Back"'s mix of church-like reverb and a beat-full of pops and sighs finds a happy medium between Krell's debut and his new approach, while "Ocean Floor for Everything" feels like a more literal, lower-pitched Balam Acab track. Ultimately, Total Loss reflects a trade-off of one type of emotional expression for another, and the change from the ghostly intimacy of Krell's debut to this clearer, more overt music makes for a prettier, more polished set of songs that are a little less strikingly original than what came before them. Considering how divisive Love Remains' intentional sonic flaws were, if listeners can hear How to Dress Well better on Total Loss, then that counts for something.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Country, God Or The Girl

K'NAAN
Make no mistake: This is K'naan's stab at at the big time. His fourth album is cut with brain-grabbing hooks, pop-friendly beats and so much singing by the MC you almost forget he is an MC. Long-time fans may worry the Somali-Canadian rapper's fire has been watered down, but while Country is steeped in a mellow gold, it's also distinctively clever. Themes of love and loss are set to bouncy beats; lyrics name-check Betty White and Nancy Kerrigan; and bits of Afropop (the light marimbas of "Simple," the funky sax of "70 Excuses") infiltrate top-40 fodder. Then there's "Gold in Timbuktu," one of the strangest, sweetest hip-hop tracks ever. From the overlapping themes his album title introduces to his diverse guest stars (Nas! Bono!), K'naan is playing with what it means to be a pop star.

Rachel Devitt, Google Play

Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection

Katy Perry

New Life

Monica
Fans had grown accustomed to three- and four-year gaps between Monica releases, but the singer returns a year-and-a-half after Still Standing with New Life, her seventh album. Featuring collaborations with Polow da Don and Missy Elliott, New Life is led by the Elliott-produced single "Anything (To Find You)," co-written by Jazmine Sullivan and featuring Rick Ross., Rovi

The Soul Sessions, Vol. 2

Joss Stone
In 2003, before the soulful vocals of British chanteuses like Amy Winehouse and Adele swept the globe, 16-year-old Joss Stone debuted with The Soul Sessions, a collection of covers showcasing a voice beyond her years and a surprisingly strong delivery. Almost a decade later, the sequel to Stone's debut finds the Grammy winner once again reinterpreting the legends, from Labi Siffre's "I Got the…" and Womack & Womack's "Teardrops" to the Dells' "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)" and the Chi-Lites' "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People." With a range even more commanding than before, especially apparent on her unexpected cover of Broken Bells' "The High Road," Stone's sixth studio album marks a welcome return to her classic soul beginnings.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac

Various Artists
With a clutch of records that never lost their studio sparkle and legendary Behind the Music decadence, Fleetwood Mac has earned a sanctified place in indie rock culture. Much of this tribute recasts Stevie Nicks' shimmering radio staples with a poised, scruffy aesthetic: Best Coast offers a simplified "Rhiannon," Lykke Li lolls through "Silver Springs" and Antony (of…and the Johnsons) pulls off a haunting "Landslide." And while some renditions are spot-on (the collaboration between Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and J Mascis on the instrumental "Albatross") and others are stripped bare (The Kills' "Dreams"), the best moments happen when the contributors step out of Mac's shadow and give room to their own gifts, as on Marianne Faithfull's heavy-hearted rendition of "Angel."

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Kiss The Ring

DJ Khaled
Kiss the Ring is DJ Khaled's sixth album, and on it he's as scarce as he's always been. Sure, he shouts a lot during its lulls, has a few co-production credits and even awkwardly raps on one song, but beyond that his involvement is still largely curatorial. It's an album-length posse cut, a blitzkrieg showcase for both established icons like Lil Wayne and Kanye West and emerging talents like Meek Mill and Kendrick. Over stadium-sized productions, these guests—28 of them in total, across just 12 tracks—rap like they have everything to prove, and then immediately disappear. Kiss the Ring is a blockbuster movie, packed to the brim with superstars and sometimes spellbinding action sequences but lacking a discernible plot.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

welcome to: OUR HOUSE

Slaughterhouse
It makes sense that Eminem would sign blog rap darlings Slaughterhouse to his Shady Records imprint. The quartet specializes in an aggressive, wordy and punchline-heavy style that feels like the modern extension of what Em was doing prior to his ascension to pop superstar. Slaughterhouse seems to be aiming for those same heights with Welcome to: Our House, their second full-length and first for the label. On it, they're as sharp as ever when it comes to lyrical showboating but too many of their musical choices are awkwardly tailored for pop radio. This means tacking the melodramatic sap of rent-a-songstress Skylar Grey onto two tracks and delving into full-on trance rap with the shameless "Frat House." Stranger still, the group sticks to their ideological guns throughout the album, passionately pledging themselves to hip-hop purism while making aesthetic decisions that directly oppose those values.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

The Carpenter

The Avett Brothers
The Carpenter, the sixth studio album (and second with producer Rick Rubin) from North Carolina’s Avett Brothers, is as amiable, quaint, mischievous, sad, and disarmingly sincere as its predecessor, landing somewhere between the easy, late summer nostalgia of Ron Sexsmith, the wise and wounded defiance of the Band, and the harmony-laden, pop-laced melancholy of the Jayhawks. Chillier and less piano-heavy than 2009's I and Love and You, The Carpenter feels like both an exorcism and a benediction, bringing down the magnifying glass on the myriad complexities of death while maintaining an unwavering sense of optimism, a delicate balance that's best exemplified on the lovely opener "The Once and Future Carpenter," a dusty, sprawling, yet meticulously crafted '70s folk-rock stunner that's built around the notion that "If I live the life I'm given I won’t be scared to die." That adherence to maverick decency permeates much of the album, dutifully utilizing the outlaw country archetype of the weary traveler in search of an honest woman and a respite from the spiritual grind of the open road. Scott and Seth Avett's glassy tenors may not harbor the grit and grime of Waylon Jennings or Townes Van Zandt, but set piece ballads like the bittersweet "February Seven" and "Winter in My Heart," the latter of which is pure Red Headed Stranger-era Willie Nelson with a bigger arsenal of chords, ache with the kind of weary, pre-dawn fervor that usually accompanies a wanderlust binge. It's not all tears and beers though, as evidenced by more propulsive cuts like the bouncy, banjo-led "Live and Die," "I Never Knew You," a skiffle-soaked takedown of an ex-lover, replete with stereo-panned Beatles harmonies, and the left-field, feedback-drenched art rocker "Paul Newman vs. the Demons," but it's the quieter moments that really resonate, despite what the group's notoriously kinetic live shows may suggest. At its heart, which is most definitely on its sleeve, The Carpenter is a relatively simple, country-folk record, albeit one with a college degree, and when it connects it hits that sweet spot between joy and despair that has served as the target for many a dusty brimmed singer/songwriter over the years. The Avett Brothers aren’t rewriting the book, they're just translating it for a new generation.