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