Music's Eternal Icons

The Black Album

Jay-Z
If The Black Album is Jay-Z's last, as he publicly stated it will be, it illustrates an artist going out in top form. For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper "and" the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent hip-hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career. The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock. The only issue that's puzzling about The Black Album is why one of the best rappers needs to say goodbye -- unless, of course, he's simply afraid of being taken for granted and wants listeners to imagine a rap world without him.

John Bush, Rovi

Legend (Remastered)

Bob Marley & The Wailers

The Joshua Tree

U2
Using the textured sonics of The Unforgettable Fire as a basis, U2 expanded those innovations by scaling back the songs to a personal setting and adding a grittier attack for its follow-up, The Joshua Tree. It's a move that returns them to the sweeping, anthemic rock of War, but if War was an exploding political bomb, The Joshua Tree is a journey through its aftermath, trying to find sense and hope in the desperation. That means that even the anthems -- the epic opener "Where the Streets Have No Name," the yearning "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- have seeds of doubt within their soaring choruses, and those fears take root throughout the album, whether it's in the mournful sliding acoustic guitars of "Running to Stand Still," the surging "One Tree Hill," or the hypnotic elegy "Mothers of the Disappeared." So it might seem a little ironic that U2 became superstars on the back of such a dark record, but their focus has never been clearer, nor has their music been catchier, than on The Joshua Tree. Unexpectedly, U2 have also tempered their textural post-punk with American influences. Not only are Bono's lyrics obsessed with America, but country and blues influences are heard throughout the record, and instead of using these as roots, they're used as ways to add texture to the music. With the uniformly excellent songs -- only the clumsy, heavy rock and portentous lyrics of "Bullet the Blue Sky" fall flat -- the result is a powerful, uncompromising record that became a hit due to its vision and its melody. Never before have U2's big messages sounded so direct and personal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Fallen

Evanescence
Fallen is the major-label debut of Evanescence, a Little Rock, AR-based quartet led by the soaring vocals of 20-year-old Amy Lee. Emboldened by the inclusion of its single "Bring Me to Life" on the soundtrack to the hit film Daredevil, Fallen debuted at an impressive number seven on Billboard's Top 40. But "Bring Me to Life" is a bit misleading. A flawless slice of Linkin Park-style anguish pop, it's actually a duet between Lee and 12 Stones' Paul McCoy. In fact, almost half of Fallen's 11 songs are piano-driven ballads that suggest Tori Amos if she wore too much mascara and recorded for the Projekt label. The other half of the album does include flashes of the single's PG-rated nu-metal ("Everybody's Fool," "Going Under"). But it's the symphonic goth rock of groups like Type O Negative that influences most of Fallen. Ethereal synths float above Ben Moody's crunching guitar in "Haunted," while "Whisper" even features apocalyptic strings and a scary chorus of Latin voices right out of Carmina Burana. "Tourniquet" is an anguished, urgent rocker driven by chugging guitars and spiraling synths, with brooding lyrics that reference Evanescence's Christian values: "Am I too lost to be saved?/Am I too lost?/My God! My tourniquet/Return to me salvation." The song is Fallen's emotional center point and defines the band's sound.

That Lonesome Song

Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson takes a traditional approach to country songwriting, a stance not always commercially viable in the early 21st century. Johnson came to Nashville in 2000 and, after years of struggling, cut The Dollar in 2005, but when the label couldn't get a hit single off the album, they dropped him. Johnson concentrated on his songwriting and had hits with George Strait, who took "Give It Away" to number one; Trace Adkins, and another number one with "Ladies Love Country Boys"; and Joe Nichols. Proving that chart success doesn't always equal happiness, Johnson's marriage broke up around this time and he spent a long while in seclusion writing the desperate songs that make up That Lonesome Song. Johnson first released the album on his website, then his own Humphead label, but Mercury Records picked it up for nationwide release in August of 2008. The critical cliché would be "They don't write albums like That Lonesome Song any more," which is at least partially true. The raw emotion and barely controlled heartache that Johnson brings to his singing and songwriting on the album aren't exactly in style in 2008's country market, but lovers of old-fashioned hardcore country and honky tonk music will be stunned by its emotional depth and strong melodies. Most modern country singers flounder when they try to put across a ballad, often loading down the lyric with sentimentality rather than real feeling. On an album that's almost exclusively ballads, Johnson never falls into that trap. The songs are full of keen insights, clever turns of phrase, and real emotion.

"High Cost of Living" is a moody evaluation of life on the skids that references pot, booze, drugs, infidelity, and hopelessness, without dipping into self-pity. The Hammond B-3 that plays in the background makes it sound like an anti-gospel song and the hook uses the kind of wordplay that used to be the hallmark of country songwriting -- "The high cost of living ain't nothing like the cost of living high." On "Mowin' Down the Roses" the B-3 gives the tune a spooky feel, as Johnson delivers a somber exorcism of his former life, purging the house of every trace of his wife: smashing her pictures, flushing her perfume down the toilet, and mowin' down the roses in the garden. The song doesn't sound like a celebration of newfound freedom; it's a hopeless dirge delivered in a flat, emotionless tone that makes the song even more effective. It's followed by a Bob McDill tune, "The Door Is Always Open," one of the few hopeful numbers on the album, although its lyric and Johnson's delivery give the song a less hopeful spin that you'd expect. The title tune paints the picture of a bleak, hung-over morning. It starts as a acoustic lament, then slowly adds a loping Waylon Jennings beat to deliver a cautionary tale of a singer who throws his life away for the love of a lonesome song. "Women" is a celebration of the fairer sex, and one man's inability to understand them. It's a tongue-in-cheek tune with a great pedal steel break, and rides that jaunty Waylon two-step stomp rhythm. The album closes with the self-congratulatory tale of Johnson's quest for fame, a guy who comes to Nashville with his own sound, somewhere "Between Jennings and Jones." It's another tune that almost dips into self-parody, but Johnson's style is, in fact, between Jennings and Jones. His ironic delivery of the tune is perfect and as he points out in the lyric, if they still had record stores, his albums would be filed between Jennings and Jones.

j. poet, Rovi

Innervisions

Stevie Wonder
When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early '70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the '60s dream -- all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he'd written before. Two of the highlights, "Living for the City" and "Too High," make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie's narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) "Too High" is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. "Higher Ground," a funky follow-up to the previous album's big hit ("Superstition"), and "Jesus Children of America" both introduced Wonder's interest in Eastern religion. It's a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album. Wonder also made no secret of the fact that "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America's faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early '70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard.

John Bush, Rovi

Synchronicity

The Police
Simultaneously more pop-oriented and experimental than either Ghost in the Machine or Zenyatta Mondatta, Synchronicity made the Police superstars, generating no less than five hit singles. With the exception of "Synchronicity II," which sounds disarmingly like a crappy Billy Idol song, every one of those singles is a classic. "Every Breath You Take" has a seductive, rolling beat masking its maliciousness, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are devilishly infectious new wave singles, and "Tea in the Sahara" is hypnotic in its measured, melancholy choruses. But, like so many other Police albums, these songs are surrounded by utterly inconsequential filler. This time, the group relies heavily on jazzy textures for Sting's songs, which only work on the jumping, marimba-driven "Synchronicity I." Then, as if to prove that the Police were still a band, there's one song apiece from Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, both of which are awful, as if they're trying to sabotage the album. Since they arrive on the first side, which is devoid of singles, they do, making the album sound like two EPs: one filled with first-rate pop, and one an exercise in self-indulgence. While the hits are among Sting's best, they also illustrate that he was ready to leave the Police behind for a solo career, which is exactly what he did.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Nevermind

Nirvana
Twenty years after the release of an album that irreversibly altered the landscape of popular music comes this enormous five-disc box set that features, alongside the original album, three CDs of previously unreleased recordings, rarities, B-sides, BBC radio appearances, alternative mixes, rare live recordings, and a DVD featuring an entire previously unreleased concert.

Finding Beauty In Negative Spaces

Seether

King

O.A.R.
O.A.R. streamlined their sound on 2008’s All Sides, downplaying the frat boy anthems and reggae rhythms that launched their career in favor of a slick pop/rock approach. Released three years later, King finds the group reconvening the production team that turned All Sides into a Top 40 hit. The songs are more laid-back this time around, more reminiscent of Dave Matthews than the Snow Patrol epics that filled All Sides.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Al Green

Graduation

Kanye West

The Marshall Mathers LP

Eminem

All Eyez On Me

2pac
Maybe it was his time in prison, or maybe it was simply his signing with Suge Knight's Death Row label. Whatever the case, 2Pac re-emerged hardened and hungry with All Eyez on Me, the first double-disc album of original material in hip-hop history. With all the controversy surrounding him, 2Pac seemingly wanted to throw down a monumental epic whose sheer scope would make it an achievement of itself. But more than that, it's also an unabashed embrace of the gangsta lifestyle, backing off the sober self-recognition of Me Against the World. Sure, there are a few reflective numbers and dead-homiez tributes, but they're much more romanticized this time around. All Eyez on Me is 2Pac the thug icon in all his brazen excess, throwing off all self-control and letting it all hang out -- even if some of it would have been better kept to himself. In that sense, it's an accurate depiction of what made him such a volatile and compelling personality, despite some undeniable filler. On the plus side, this is easily the best production he's ever had on record, handled mostly by Johnny J (notably on the smash "How Do U Want It") and Dat Nigga Daz; Dr. Dre also contributes another surefire single in "California Love" (which, unfortunately, is present only as a remix, not the original hit version). Both hits are on the front-loaded first disc, which would be a gangsta classic in itself; other highlights include the anthemic Snoop Dogg duet "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," "All About U" (with the required Nate Dogg-sung hook), and "I Ain't Mad at Cha," a tribute to old friends who've gotten off the streets. Despite some good moments, the second disc is slowed by filler and countless guest appearances, plus a few too many thug-lovin' divas crooning their loyalty. Erratic though it may be, All Eyez on Me is nonetheless carried off with the assurance of a legend in his own time, and it stands as 2Pac's magnum opus.

Doggystyle

Snoop Dogg
N.W.A. bloodied their gangsta rap with menace: crack addiction, drive-bys, broken homes. Dr. Dre's G-funk cool (with its all day picnics, smoked BBQ and house parties) softened this image considerably. Then Snoop dropped Doggystyle. Darkness still lurks around most corners. "I'm on my way to Chino, rollin' on the grey goose, shackled from head to toe," the rapper croaks in "Murder Was the Case." But what really stands out is his Parliament-inspired knack for detailing the tragic comedies that come with ghetto life. Though he was a gangbanger in his youth, Snoop quickly became hip-hop's court jester.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy
Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child's play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could do. That's not to say the album is without precedent, since what's particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D's writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It's not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries -- certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow -- but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav's frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What's amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn't dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Back To Black

Amy Winehouse
The story of Back to Black is one in which celebrity and the potential of commercial success threaten to ruin Amy Winehouse, since the same insouciance and playfulness that made her sound so special when she debuted could easily have been whitewashed right out of existence for this breakout record. (That fact may help to explain why fans were so scared by press allegations that Winehouse had deliberately lost weight in order to present a slimmer appearance.) Although Back to Black does see her deserting jazz and wholly embracing contemporary R&B, all the best parts of her musical character emerge intact, and actually, are all the better for the transformation from jazz vocalist to soul siren. With producer Salaam Remi returning from Frank, plus the welcome addition of Mark Ronson (fresh off successes producing for Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams), Back to Black has a similar sound to Frank but much more flair and spark to it. Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that "anyone", even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/You go back to her, and I go back to black").

John Bush, Rovi

Things Fall Apart

The Roots
One of the cornerstone albums of alternative rap's second wave, Things Fall Apart was the point where the Roots' tremendous potential finally coalesced into a structured album that maintained its focus from top to bottom. If the group sacrifices a little of the unpredictability of its jam sessions, the resulting consistency more than makes up for it, since the record flows from track to track so effortlessly. Taking its title from the Chinua Achebe novel credited with revitalizing African fiction, Things Fall Apart announces its ambition right upfront, and reinforces it in the opening sound collage. Dialogue sampled from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues implies a comparison to abstract modern jazz that lost its audience, and there's another quote about hip-hop records being treated as disposable, that they aren't maximized as product or as art. That's the framework in which the album operates, and while there's a definite unity counteracting the second observation, the artistic ambition actually helped gain the Roots a whole new audience ("coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common puts it in the liner notes). The backing tracks are jazzy and reflective, filled with subtly unpredictable instrumental lines, and the band also shows a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement, which they actually had a hand in kick-starting via their supporting work on Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Badu returns the favor by guesting on the album's breakthrough single, "You Got Me," an involved love story that also features a rap from Eve, co-writing from Jill Scott, and an unexpected drum'n'bass breakbeat in the outro. Other notables include Mos Def on the playful old-school rhymefest "Double Trouble," Slum Village superproducer Jay Dee on "Dynamite!," and Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff on "The Next Movement." But the real stars are Black Thought and Malik B, who drop such consistently nimble rhymes throughout the record that picking highlights is extremely difficult. Along with works by Lauryn Hill, Common, and Black Star, Things Fall Apart is essential listening for anyone interested in the new breed of mainstream conscious rap. [Things Fall Apart, Rovi

Odelay

Beck
Following the surprise success of slacker-rap novelty "Loser" and Mellow Gold, Beck Hansen teamed up with producers the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique) to create a certifiable classic. Odelay captured all the elements that would make Beck such an enduring, shape-shifting star: cut-and-paste hip-hop, searing white boy funk and deeply felt folk melancholy. But while the crate-digging, mash-up style was ahead of its time, it's Beck's assured songwriting, appealingly nonsense lyrics and aloof charisma that seal it. From the mad guitar riff of "Devils Haircut" to the clap-along of "Where It's At" to the weary, heartbreaking folk drift of "Jack-Ass," Odelay gleefully bent all the rules of the rapidly ossifying "alternative" genre. As eternally fresh as a radioactive Twinkie.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Driving Towards The Daylight

Joe Bonamassa
Eleven albums in as many years, three more with his group Black Country Communion, plus too many cameos to count—yessir, Joe Bonamassa is one of modern blues-rock's most prolific artists. That said, what truly distinguishes him from his peers isn't productivity, but diversity. Driving Towards the Daylight proves this, boasting as it does a wide-spectrum balance of rippling groovers (the Zep-tinged "Stones in My Passway"), rambunctious houserocking ("I Got All You Need") and introspective ballads (the title track). Moreover, Bonamassa's arrangements are always ambitious and full-tilt. The seven-minute reworking of Bill Withers' "Lonely Town, Lonely Street" contains a treasure trove of nasty licks and breakdowns that will blow away old school classic rock fans.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

The Definitive Collection

Louis Armstrong
The Definitive Collection devoted to Louis Armstrong takes a reverse chronological view of the pop giant's career, a format that functions surprisingly well considering its intended purpose. Beginning with his last major performance, 1967's "What a Wonderful World," the disc takes listeners on a 75-minute tour that pays closest attention to his pop and vocal landmarks of the '50s and '60s with his All-Stars group, but also reaches back to 1938 to pick up the best moments of his excellent big band. (That leaves, of course, his seminal Hot Five sides out in the cold, to be picked up elsewhere.) Also briefly surveyed are his multi-album collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald, his lush "Louis with strings" albums arranged by Russ Garcia, his hit duet with Bing Crosby on "Gone Fishin'," and the series of songs ("Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife") that lengthened his sheet to include not only Jazz Age hero and swing progenitor, but also postwar pop stalwart. Clearly, the career of Louis Armstrong the jazz artist can't be covered thoroughly with anything but a box set that selects material from his entire working life, but as an overview of Louis Armstrong the pop singer, The Definitive Collection is peerless. One caveat: Armstrong's best latter-day pop song, "We Have All the Time in the World" (from the 1969 James Bond vehicle On Her Majesty's Secret Service), is sadly missing in action.

John Bush, Rovi

Number 1's

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye's Number 1's, like the other Number 1's discs issued by Universal Music Distribution during early 2007, is an attractive package that would nonetheless have trouble surviving a minor spill or even a swift breeze. The disc sits in biodegradable foam, which is protected by a wraparound cardboard sleeve. In fact, the packaging might be lighter than the disc itself. At any rate, there's nothing to complain about when it comes to the contents of the disc: 13 number one hits, released between 1965 and 1982 (credit Universal for licensing "Sexual Healing" from Sony BMG), along with three bonus cuts that stalled at number two. Of course, Gaye's catalog goes fathoms deeper than the chart-toppers, but this makes a fine introduction.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Love Angel Music Baby

Gwen Stefani
In the wake of Gwen Stefani's elevation to diva status in the early 2000s, it's easy to forget that for a brief moment at the start of the millennium it seemed that she and her band, No Doubt, were dangerously close to being pegged as yet another of the one-album alt-rock wonders of the '90s. Return of Saturn, their long-awaited 2000 follow-up to their blockbuster 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, failed to ignite any sparks at either retail or radio, despite receiving some strong reviews, and the group seemed on the verge of disappearing. Then, Gwen sang on Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" in 2001. The Dr. Dre-produced song was a brilliant single, driven by a G-funk groove and a sultry pop chorus delivered by Stefani, and it was an enormous hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard charts and winning a Grammy, while redefining Gwen's image in the process. No longer the cute SoCal ska-punk kid of Tragic Kingdom, she was a sexy, glamorous club queen, and No Doubt's next album, 2001's Rock Steady, not only reflected this extreme makeover, it benefited from it, since her new ghetto-fabulous persona turned the album into a big hit. A side effect of this was that Gwen now had a higher profile than her band, making a solo album somewhat inevitable. Since she always dominated No Doubt -- she was their face, voice, lyricist, and sex symbol, after all -- it's reasonable to ask whether vanity was the only reason she wanted to break out on her own, since it seemed to the outside observer that she helped set the musical course for the band.

A quick listen to Love.Angel.Music.Baby., her 2004 solo debut, reveals that this is not an album she could have made with the group -- it's too club-centric, too fashion-obsessed, too willfully weird to be a No Doubt album. Working with far too many collaborators -- including Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Linda Perry, Dallas Austin, André 3000, Nellee Hooper, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and her No Doubt bandmate (and ex-boyfriend) Tony Kanal -- Stefani has created a garish, neon-colored, deliberately stylish solo album that's intermittently exciting and embarrassing. It covers far too much ground to be coherent, but a large part of its charm is to hear it careen from the thumping, minimal beats of the Neptunes-helmed "Hollaback Girl" to the sleek, new wave textures of the high school anthem-in-waiting "Cool" and back to the exhilarating freakazoid sex song "Bubble Pop Electric," featuring André 3000's alter ego Johnny Vulture. This is music that exists entirely on the surface -- so much so, that when André drops in Martin Luther King samples into the closer, "Long Way to Go," it's a jarring buzz kill -- and that's what's appealing about L.A.M.B., even if it is such a shallow celebration of fleeting style and outdated bling-bling culture, it can grate. This shallowness can result in intoxicating beats, hooks, and melodies, but also a fair share of embarrassments, from odes to "hydroponic love" and choruses built on either "That's my s*it" or "take a chance, you stupid ho" to the stumbling contributions from Linda Perry. But Stefani's dogged desire to cobble together her own patchwork style while adhering to both her new wave chick and urban goddess personas can be both fascinatingly odd (her weirdly homoerotic tribute to "Harajuku Girls") and irresistible. It's telling that the best moments on the album keep closest to her new wave roots (which include heavy electro synth beats and blips): no matter how hard she tries, she is not a cultural trailblazer like Madonna. Unlike Madge, she willingly adapts to her collaborators instead of forcing them to adapt to her, which means that L.A.M.B. truly does sound like the work of seven different producers instead of one strong-willed artist. Nevertheless, even if it doesn't work all the time -- and some of its best tracks still have moments that induce a withering cringe -- it's a glitzy, wild ride that's stranger and often more entertaining than nearly any other mainstream pop album of 2004.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Ray Sings, Basie Swings

Ray Charles
Ray Sings, Basie Swings, huh? Hmm, well, yes and no. You see, the story goes something like this. In 2005, Concord Records exec John Burk, who produced Ray Charles' superb late-career, Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company, found a reel of tape simply labeled "Ray/Basie." Upon further analysis, it was determined that the 1973 recording featured Ray Charles backed by his own band -- Count Basie and his band had actually recorded earlier that day. Charles' vocal was exceptionally prominent in the mix and at first it was thought that this potentially momentous discovery would prove unable to bear fruit. But then Burk brainstormed and decided to bring the current Count Basie Orchestra -- whose leader died in 1984 -- into the studio to lay tracks behind Charles' vocals. So there's no Basie on Ray Sings, Basie Swings, but that's merely a technicality, because there is some great music. Charles was in fine form vocally on this mix of remakes of his early ABC-Paramount-era hits and then-recent material. The consecutive reworkings of "Busted," "Cryin' Time," and "I Can't Stop Loving You," three of his defining Top Ten hits of the early '60s, are given brassy, bluesy treatments here, and standards ranging from Oscar Hammerstein II's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" to the Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" are transformed in Charles' hands. The set-closing "Georgia on My Mind," as close to a signature song as Charles had, is given a tender, minimalist reading, but the track preceding it, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," picked up from the folk-pop singer Melanie, is quite possibly the album's highlight. It's appeared on other Ray Charles compilations before, but the gospelized, testifyin' version featured here has got to be the liveliest take on that song anyone's ever devised. So, yeah, there's no Count Basie to be found here, but his namesake orchestra does him proud. For one of those postmortem studio patch jobs that owes as much to technology as talent, it's a fine addition to the Ray Charles oeuvre, as long as one can get past the semi-false advertising of its title.

Jeff Tamarkin, Rovi

Endtroducing...

DJ Shadow

All The Best!

Paul McCartney
Technically, All the Best was the first compilation of McCartney's solo material, since Wings Greatest covered songs released under the Wings aegis. Well, there is considerable overlap between the two records -- no less than "ten" of that album's 12 songs are here, yet only the hard-rocking "Hi Hi Hi" is truly missed -- although the seven new songs do give this album a different character, for better or worse. With the U.S. version of All the Best, which has four different songs than its British counterpart, the balance shifts toward the positive, since it simply boasts a better selection of songs. Yes, "Once Upon a Long Ago," the single offered as bait on the British All the Best, isn't here, but it's not missed since two of the four songs exclusive to the American version are among McCartney's best solo singles ("Junior's Farm," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey") and the other two are good adult contemporary easy listening (the previously non-LP "Goodnight Tonight," "With a Little Luck"). These songs add to the retrospective, although it's still not perfect -- such highlights as "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Take It Away" really should have been included. However, as a cross section of McCartney's solo singles, this is very, very good. It may be a little heavy on the schmaltz at times, yet this is still mainstream pop craft of the highest order.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Ultimate Collection: Jackson 5

Jackson 5
The first single-disc Jackson 5 collection to take full advantage of the compact-disc medium, The Ultimate Collection is certainly the ultimate for any but the most hardcore fans. Ranging from 1969's "I Want You Back" to 1975's "I Am Love, Pts. 1-2," these 21 tracks include each of the group's hits, among them "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I'll Be There," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Maybe Tomorrow," "Lookin' Through the Windows," "Get It Together," and "Dancing Machine." And unlike previous hits collections (barring only the multi-disc Anthology), there's plenty of space for more material: a few solo hits from Michael ("Got to Be There," "Rockin' Robin," "Just a Little Bit of You") and Jermaine ("Daddy's Home"), plus a pair of previously unreleased tracks ("It's Your Thing," a slowed-down Isleys cover, and "The Life of the Party"). Despite a few classic albums, the Jackson 5 were singles artists first and foremost, and their two-minute blasts of rhythm and energy are best-heard on a compilation. The best of that lot is this one.

John Bush, Rovi

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 Very Best Of Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes
This is not a bad start, at least as far as single-disc representations of Isaac Hayes' Stax years are considered. The Very Best of Isaac Hayes contains many of the necessities -- his reinventions of "Walk on By," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and "Never Can Say Goodbye," alongside originals like "Theme from Shaft," "Do Your Thing," and "Joy, Pt. 1" -- but since it contains a total of 18 tracks, there's no room left for the original full-length album versions, so you get the single edits. Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?, a two-disc/one-DVD set released in 2005 by Stax, is easier to recommend because it is more expansive, allowing enough room for all 12 minutes of "Walk on By" and a few essential cuts that couldn't fit here -- such as "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" and "I Stand Accused."

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Love Vs Money

The-Dream