Greatest Grammy Hits

Curtain Call: The Hits

Eminem
If Eminem's Curtain Call: The Hits really is his final bow and not merely a clever denouement to his series of Eminem Show and Encore albums, it's a worthy way to retire. And even if he stages a comeback years from now, there's little question that the first five years of his career, spanning four albums plus a soundtrack, will be his popular and creative peak, meaning that the time is right for Curtain Call -- it has all the songs upon which his legend lies. Which isn't necessarily the same things as all the hits. There are a few odds and ends missing -- most notably one of his first hip-hop hits, "Just Don't Give a F***," plus 2003's "Superman" and 2005's "Ass Like That" -- but all the big songs are here: "Guilty Conscience," "My Name Is," "Stan," "The Real Slim Shady," "The Way I Am," "Cleanin' Out My Closet," "Lose Yourself," "Without Me" and "Just Lose It." They're not presented in chronological order, which by and large isn't a problem, since the sequencing here not only has a good, logical momentum, alternating between faster and slower tracks, but they're all part of a body of work that's one of the liveliest, most inventive in pop music in the 21st century. The only exception to the rule are the three new songs here, all finding Shady sounding somewhat thin. There's the closing "When I'm Gone," a sentimental chapter in the Eminem domestic psychodrama that bears the unmistakable suggestion that Em is going away for a while. While it's not up to the standard of "Mockingbird," it is more fully realized than the two other new cuts here, both sex songs that find Shady sounding as if he's drifting along in his own orbit. "Shake That" has an incongruous Nate Dogg crooning the chorus, while the wildly weird "Fack" finds Eminem spending the entire track fighting off an orgasm; it seems tired, a little too close to vulgar Weird Al territory, and it doesn't help that his Jenna Jameson reference seems a little old (everybody knows that the busty porno "It" girl of 2005 is Jesse Jane; after all, she even was in Entourage). Even if these three cuts suggest why Eminem is, if not retiring, at least taking a long break, that's fine: they're reasonably good and are bolstered by the rest of the songs here, which don't just capture him at his best, but retain their energy, humor, weirdness, and vitality even after they've long become overly familiar. And that means Curtain Call isn't just a good way to bow out, but it's a great greatest-hits album by any measure.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 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

21st Century Breakdown

Green Day
American Idiot was a rarity of the 21st century: a bona fide four-quadrant hit, earning critical and commercial respect, roping in new fans young and old alike. It was so big it turned Green Day into something it had never been before -- respected, serious rockers, something they were never considered during their first flight of success with Dookie. Back then, they were clearly (and proudly) slacker rebels with a natural gift for a pop hook, but American Idiot was a big album with big ideas, a political rock opera in an era devoid of "both" protest rock and wild ambition, so its success was a surprise. It also ratcheted up high expectations for its successor, and Green Day consciously plays toward those expectations on 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, another political rock opera that isn't an explicit sequel but could easily be mistaken for one, especially as its narrative follows a young couple through the wilderness of modern urban America. Heady stuff, but like the best rock operas, the concept doesn't get in the way of the music, which is a bit of an accomplishment because 21st Century Breakdown leaves behind the punchy '60s Who fascination for Queen and '70s Who, giving this more than its share of pomp and circumstance. Then again, puffed-up protest is kind of the point of 21st Century Breakdown: it's meant to be taken seriously, so it's not entirely surprising that Green Day fall into many of the same pompous tarpits as their heroes, ratcheting up the stately pianos, vocal harmonies, repeated musical motifs, doubled and tripled guitars, and synthesized effects that substitute for strings, then adding some orchestras for good measure. It would all sound cluttered, even turgid, if it weren't for Green Day's unerring knack for writing muscular pop and natural inclination to run clean and lean, letting only one song run over five minutes and never letting the arrangements overshadow the song. Although Green Day's "other" natural gift, that for impish irreverent humor, is missed -- they left it all behind on their 2008 garage rock side project Foxboro Hot Tubs -- the band manages to have 21st Century Breakdown work on a grand scale without losing either their punk or pop roots, which makes the album not only a sequel to American Idiot, but its equal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Rumours

Fleetwood Mac
Rumours is the kind of album that transcends its origins and reputation, entering the realm of legend -- it's an album that simply exists outside of criticism and outside of its time, even if it thoroughly captures its era. Prior to this LP, Fleetwood Mac were moderately successful, but here they turned into a full-fledged phenomenon, with Rumours becoming the biggest-selling pop album to date. While its chart success was historic, much of the legend surrounding the record is born from the group's internal turmoil. Unlike most bands, Fleetwood Mac in the mid-'70s were professionally and romantically intertwined, with no less than two couples in the band, but as their professional career took off, the personal side unraveled. Bassist John McVie and his keyboardist/singer wife Christine McVie filed for divorce as guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks split, with Stevie running to drummer Mick Fleetwood, unbeknown to the rest of the band. These personal tensions fueled nearly every song on Rumours, which makes listening to the album a nearly voyeuristic experience. You're eavesdropping on the bandmates singing painful truths about each other, spreading nasty lies and rumors and wallowing in their grief, all in the presence of the person who caused the heartache. Everybody loves gawking at a good public breakup, but if that was all that it took to sell a record, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights would be multi-platinum. No, what made Rumours an unparalleled blockbuster is the quality of the music. Once again masterminded by producer/songwriter/guitarist Buckingham, Rumours is an exceptionally musical piece of work -- he toughens Christine McVie and softens Nicks, adding weird turns to accessibly melodic works, which gives the universal themes of the songs haunting resonance. It also cloaks the raw emotion of the lyrics in deceptively palatable arrangements that made a tune as wrecked and tortured as "Go Your Own Way" an anthemic hit. But that's what makes Rumours such an enduring achievement -- it turns private pain into something universal. Some of these songs may be too familiar, whether through their repeated exposure on FM radio or their use in presidential campaigns, but in the context of the album, each tune, each phrase regains its raw, immediate emotional power -- which is why Rumours touched a nerve upon its 1977 release, and has since transcended its era to be one of the greatest, most compelling pop albums of all time.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Graceland - 25th Anniversary Edition

Paul Simon
Paul Simon's dazzling mix of American roots music, South African pop and highly personal songcraft instantly became one of the key albums of the 1980s and is now internationally considered among the greatest of all time. The zydeco rush of "Boy in the Bubble" and the autobiographical title track both offer musical comfort to confusing, sometimes deadly, modern landscapes, while the transcendent "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" brings magical realism to gritty urban streets.

-- Nick Dedina, Google Play

The Rising

Bruce Springsteen
Although the unusual status of the E Street Band in Bruce Springsteen's career (more than a backup group, less than full-fledged partners) has been understood by his audience practically from the beginning, Springsteen's own attitude toward them, particularly with regard to his recordings, has been ambivalent. While they accompanied him and even earned co-billing on his tours and played in various combinations on his records, they have been credited on the covers of only the two concert albums on which they appear (Live 1975-1985 and Live in New York City). Even while keeping them on retainer, he released Nebraska, on which they were not featured, and, of course, he largely dropped them for nearly ten years between 1989 and 1999. One of the most welcome aspects of the 1999-2000 world tour was that Springsteen finally seemed to have embraced the E Street Band as a permanent part of his legacy, and in turning the production reins for his 12th studio album, The Rising, over to Brendan O'Brien, known for his work with Pearl Jam and Neil Young & Crazy Horse, he seems to have deliberately intended to emphasize that Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band are to be understood as a musical unit. The album's songs invariably have band arrangements that emphasize the cohesion of this group that first played together in 1975, with some of its associations dating back further than that. O'Brien also brings a fresh perspective to Springsteen's traditional sound, however, helping to integrate into it choral and string arrangements, a Middle Eastern introduction on "Worlds Apart," and obvious editing effects.

The Rising may audibly be the work of the band that made The River and Born in the U.S.A., but it is also an album of the 21st century. Such a combination of the familiar and the contemporary is appropriate to the album's contents. One may speculate what sort of album Springsteen would have made if the September 11 terrorist attacks had not taken place; when they did, he seems to have understood immediately that his unique position as a veteran East Coast-based singer/songwriter whose work has always addressed the concerns of his generation obligated him to treat the subject of the disaster in his music. Before September 11, Springsteen was the bard not only of the kind of working-class people who make up the uniformed services, but also, oddly enough, of the upper-class stockbroker types who filled the higher floors of the World Trade Center. These twin constituencies took the hit on September 11, and Springsteen could no more ignore the event than Picasso could have avoided painting Guernica. Such a reference is not idly made, either. As an artist, Springsteen possesses both the gravitas and the understanding of the issues necessary to turn The Rising into a cathartic experience for his listeners. He does not flinch from evoking the catastrophe, singing in the voices of those who died and of those who survived, but were traumatized. Nor does he hesitate to transform the anguish of the tragedy into anthemic, uplifting choruses that proclaim a determination to recover. In the past, the depth of despair expressed in some of Springsteen's songs sometimes may have seemed exaggerated, just as those marathon concerts could make you suspect, somewhere in the fourth hour, that he kept playing because he couldn't figure out how to stop. But on The Rising (which clocks in at 73 minutes), he has a subject that justifies his tendencies toward length and seriousness, and does it justice. The Rising is an album for Springsteen's region, where it has come to seem that everyone knows someone who died on September 11, and it is an album for his nation, which continues to try to understand the tragedy and to learn and recover from it.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Thriller

Michael Jackson
Off the Wall was a massive success, spawning four Top Ten hits (two of them number ones), but nothing could have prepared Michael Jackson for Thriller. Nobody could have prepared anybody for the success of Thriller, since the magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable -- an album that sold 40 million copies in its initial chart run, with "seven" of its nine tracks reaching the Top Ten (for the record, the terrific "Baby Be Mine" and the pretty good ballad "The Lady in My Life" are not like the others). This was a record that had something for everybody, building on the basic blueprint of Off the Wall by adding harder funk, hard rock, softer ballads, and smoother soul -- expanding the approach to have something for every audience. That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience, but it also arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star as much as the network helped him. This all would have made it a success (and its success, in turn, served as a new standard for success), but it stayed on the charts, turning out singles, for nearly two years because it was really, really good. True, it wasn't as tight as Off the Wall -- and the ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors title track is the prime culprit, arriving in the middle of the record and sucking out its momentum -- but those one or two cuts don't detract from a phenomenal set of music. It's calculated, to be sure, but the chutzpah of those calculations (before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut) is outdone by their success. This is where a song as gentle and lovely as "Human Nature" coexists comfortably with the tough, scared "Beat It," the sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," and the frizzy funk of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." And, although this is an undeniably fun record, the paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in the record's two best songs: "Billie Jean," where a woman claims Michael is the father of her child, and the delirious "Wanna Be Startin' Something," the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded. These give the record its anchor and are part of the reason why the record is more than just a phenomenon. The other reason, of course, is that much of this is just simply great music.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

B'Day (Bonus Tracks)

Beyoncé
At least one tactic or event preceding the release of Beyoncé's second solo album inspired a bemused three-syllable exclamation from anyone who was paying attention. The lead single, the late-'70s funk-inspired "Deja Vu," had the audacity to not be as monstrous as "Crazy in Love" -- its stay at the top of the charts was relatively brief, so clearly there was evidence of some drop-off there. This was quickly followed by "Ring the Alarm," an angered, atonal, and out-of-character song with an accompanying video that invited all kinds of perplexed analysis, along with debate on whether Beyoncé was being autobiographical or, as the singer claimed, channeling her Dreamgirls character. All of this gave the haters plenty of ammo when anything less than 100-percent polite, ladylike, and expected was bound to do the trick. Add to this an album title that can be pronounced just like "bidet," along with the advertisement that the album's ten songs were whipped up in two weeks, and you have yourself a career-killing train wreck. B'day isn't even close to that.

While Beyoncé does sound like she's in a bit of a hurry throughout the album, and there are no songs with the smooth elegance of "Me, Myself and I" or "Be with You," it is lean in a beneficial way, propelled by just as many highlights as the overlong Dangerously in Love. Two collaborations with Rich Harrison swagger and preen: "Been locked up in the house way too long/It's time to get it, 'cause once again he's out doing wrong" (the blaring/marching "Freakum Dress"); "Don't give me no lip, let mama do it all" (the spectacularly layered "Suga Mama"). The Neptunes assist on "Green Light," an ambitious, fleet-footed number that continually switches tempos and sounds, and "Kitty Kat," a deceptively sweet, rainbow-colored track -- where what sounds like purrs are more like claws-out dismissals -- either could've been pulled from one of the first three Kelis albums. And even with an entirely bonkers line like "I can do for you what Marvin did for the people," "Upgrade U" is the most potent track on the album, a low-slung Cameron Wallace production where Beyoncé wears "and" buys the pants while making her proposition sound more like empowerment than emasculation. If the circus surrounding this whole thing -- which could take up to ten pages to document -- was an elaborate ploy to transform Beyoncé into an underdog, there really is some kind of genius at play, but it's extremely unlikely that anyone in her camp could've predicted that the expectations and reactions would be less rational than "any" of Beyoncé's decisions and actions. There is nothing desperate or weak about this album. [This edition contains a bonus track "Check on It."]

Rocket Man: Number Ones

Elton John
Hard to believe, but there's never been a good single-disc overview of Elton John's biggest hits available in America until 2007's 17-track Rocket Man: Number Ones. (The British release added one track and was titled Rocket Man: The Definitive Hits.) He's had plenty of collections, including a good single-disc European set that circulated in the late '90s, but Rocket Man is the first to really offer a solid career-spanning overview as a single-disc set. Of course, even though this pulls number ones from various charts in the U.S. and U.K. there are big hits missing -- whether it's classics like "Honky Cat," which never reached the pole position in the U.S., or latter-day number ones like "I Don't Want to Go on You Like That," which did top the adult contemporary chart -- but it's hard to argue with what's here (with the possible exception of "Sacrifice," which does represent his late-'80s/early-'90s adult contemporary work but isn't one of his best hits). All the big songs -- "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Bennie and the Jets," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?," "Your Song," "Candle in the Wind" -- are here, which will satisfy the casual fan for whom this is designed. Anybody who laments the absence of "Levon," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Mama Can't Buy You Love," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," or "I'm Still Standing" should turn to another compilation: this is not the set for them. But for the fan who wants a good sampling of Elton throughout the years, this is ideal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay
Coldplay began working on Mylo Xyloto in 2009, while the band was still in the midst of its multi-year tour in support of Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. Recording sessions stretched from 2009 to 2011, with Brian Eno collaborating with the band on several songs and R&B singer Rihanna lending her vocals to “Princes of China.” Markus Dravs, Daniel Green, and Rik Simpson all shared production credits, too, resulting in a diverse album inspired by industrial rock and electro-pop. Coldplay began debuting the new tracks as early as May 2011, with “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” kicking off a string of anthemic singles., Rovi

TRON: Legacy

Daft Punk
“The Game Has Changed” is the name of one of the tracks on Daft Punk's score to Tron: Legacy, and it also fits Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo's music for the film. When it was announced that the duo would score the sequel to one of sci-fi’s most visionary movies, it seemed like the perfect fit: Their sleek, neon-tipped, playful aesthetic springs from their love of late-‘70s and early-‘80s pop culture artifacts like "Tron". However, "Tron: Legacy" takes a much darker, more serious approach than the original film and Daft Punk follows suit, delivering soaring and ominous pieces that sound more like modern classical music than any laser tag-meets-roller disco fantasies fans may have had. Tron: Legacy's legitimacy as a score may surprise listeners unaware of Bangalter’s fine work on 2003’s Irreversible; while that score actually hews closer to Daft Punk's sound, it showed his potential for crafting music beyond the duo’s usual scope. Working with the London Orchestra, Bangalter and de Hominem-Christo fuse electronic and orchestral motifs seamlessly and strikingly. “The Game Has Changed” may be the most dramatic example: It starts with a wistful wisp of melody that sounds like a ghost in the machine, then swells of strings and brass and buzzsaw electronics submerge but never quite overtake it. Elsewhere, “Recognizer”'s pulsing horns and synths and “The Son of Flynn”'s arpeggios and strings are so tightly knit that they finish each others’ phrases. Daft Punk get in a few clever nods to Wendy Carlos' Tron score, from “The Grid”'s blobby analog synth tones to “Adagio for Tron”'s mournful sense of lost wonder. However, for most of Tron: Legacy, they’re concerned with pushing boundaries. It’s not until the score’s second half that the duo’s more typical sound emerges on “Derezzed”'s filter-disco and on “End of the Line,” where witty 8-bit sounds evoke ‘80s video games. These tracks come as welcome relief from the tension Daft Punk ratchets up on almost every other piece, particularly “Rectifier” and “C.L.U.” Encompassing the past, present, and future of sci-fi scores, Tron: Legacy feels like it grew and mutated from its origins the same way the film’s world did. Without a doubt, it’s a game-changer for Daft Punk.

Until Now

Swedish House Mafia
Until Now is the second mix album from Swedish DJ supergroup Swedish House Mafia. Featuring a mix of their own material - including the singles Greyhound, Save the World and Don’t You Worry Child - the album also includes exclusive Swedish House Mafia mash-ups of tracks by the likes of Steve Aoki, Coldplay, Florence + The Machine and Axwell., Rovi

Lady Antebellum

Lady Antebellum

The Reason Why

Little Big Town
It's anybody's guess why Little Big Town's three fine singles from 2007's excellent A Place to Land failed to crack the Top 30, or why the album didn't build upon the platinum success of its predecessor, The Road to Here. That said, the bluesy roil in "Little White Church," the pre-release single from The Reason Why, LBT's fourth studio album, proves that failure was a fluke. The trademark four-part harmony that separate them from the rest of the contemporary country pack isn't the only thing: their group songwriting -- with producer and guitarist Wayne Kirkpatrick as a fifth member -- is classy, sophisticated, and doesn't rely on genre clichés. While the '70s-period Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles were clear inspirations and influences earlier, here they've been integrated into a sound that is LBT's own. The guitars are a little fiercer, the harmonies looser, and therefore more emotionally expressive; they reflect the growth in their lyrics. And even as Karen Fairchild is asserting herself as a de facto frontwoman, the contributions made by Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet and Kirkpatrick create an inseparable whole. The group wrote or co-wrote nine of the set's 12 songs, including the single, and it's their songs that shine brightest, beginning with the title-track opener. With a melody that resembles a 1960s pop song, Fairchild sings solo to a single-string electric guitar riff playing changes; the acoustic guitars fold underneath her voice and then the harmonies kick in to take the entire thing to the stratosphere. The intro harmonies on "Why, Oh Why" echo both the Louvin Brothers and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, before a nasty electric-guitar vamp, a punched-up kick drum, snare and distorted slide guitar turn this into prime, funky country-rock. "All the Way Down," introduced by a scratchy vinyl record and harmonies singing the refrain as if from the distant past backed only by a banjo, promptly shifts gears into a prime modern-country song with soaring vocals, mandolins, and an infectious hook. "Lean into It" is the stripped-down ballad that closes the album. Gentle guitars and a lonely pedal adorn Sweet's vocal, which is girded by the voices of his bandmates to provide solace during the dark hours we all endure. The Reason Why is mature, exquisitely crafted, "and" radio friendly; it ups the ante for contemporary country in songwriting, performance, and production (the latter by stripping away excess). It's as near to a perfectly balanced recording as one will find in the genre.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Speak Now

Taylor Swift
When Kanye West bum-rushed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, the world rallied around Swift not because Kanye was a “jackass,” as President Obama so succinctly summarized, but because the singer/songwriter conveyed the fragility of adolescence on her 2008 breakthrough, Fearless, so successfully that she inspired instinctive protectiveness even among those who never spent much time with the record. Not timid or a tart, Swift seemed like a genuine girl on Fearless, perhaps treating her songs a little too much like diaries, but that only made them more affecting. If anything, Swift ramps up the confessions on her 2010 sequel, Speak Now, but circumstances have changed: few listeners, if any, would have a clue about the identity of the boy who belongs with Taylor, but now that she’s a superstar, anybody with a passing familiarity with pop culture can discern which songs are about Kanye, Taylor Lautner (her ex), or Camilla Belle (the actress girl who stole Joe Jonas out from under our heroine). Not that Swift takes great pains to disguise who she’s writing about -- not when she’s writing “Dear John,” an elegant evisceration of lecherous lothario John Mayer. Such gossip mongering is titillating but fleeting, suggesting that the charms of Speak Now are insubstantial, but Swift’s gift is that she sets the troubled mind of an awkward age in stone. She writes from the perspective of the moment yet has the skill of a songwriter beyond her years, articulating contradictions and confessions with keen detail and strong melody. Tellingly, underneath all her girlishness -- and Taylor makes no apologies for being girly as she baits mean girls, dreamily thinks of stolen kisses on a sidewalk, or fantasizes about stealing away her ex-lover at the altar -- there’s a steely strength. She walks away proudly from breakups and never dwells on mistakes; she moves forward. The same could be said about the sound of Speak Now itself, which is no great progression from Fearless but rather a subtle shift toward pure pop with the country accents, such as the Dixie Chicks foundation of “Mean,” used as flavoring. But that blend of pop and country, while certainly radio-friendly, is nearly as distinctive to Taylor Swift as her songwriting voice. She may be not a girl, and not yet a woman, but on Speak Now she captures that transition with a personal grace and skill that few singer/songwriters have.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Some Hearts

Carrie Underwood
Given the tightly controlled nature of American Idol, it's a wonder that the televised talent contest has never produced a winner who specialized in country music, since there's no segment of modern popular music that is controlled tighter than contemporary country. Maybe this thought was in the minds of Simon Fuller and the rest of AmIdol's 19 management when they went into their fourth season in 2005, since as soon as fresh-faced Oklahoma blonde Carrie Underwood showed up in the audition rounds, the judges -- alright, specifically Simon Cowell -- pigeonholed her as a country singer, even if there was nothing specifically country about her sweet, friendly voice. From that point on, she was not only the frontrunner, but anointed as the show's first country winner, which apparently proved more enticing to the voters and the producers than the prospect of the show's first rock & roll winner in the guise of the Southern-fried hippie throwback Bo Bice. Which makes sense: cute, guileless young girls have a broader appeal than hairy 30-somethings. They're easier to sell and mold too, and Underwood proved particularly ideal in this regard since she was a blank slate, possessing a very good voice and an unthreatening prettiness that would be equally marketable and likeable in either country or pop. So, the powers that be decided that Underwood would be a contemporary country singer in the vein of Faith Hill -- she'd sing anthemic country pop, ideal for either country or adult contemporary radio, with none of the delightful tackiness of Shania Twain -- and her debut album, Some Hearts, not only hits this mark exactly, it's better than either album Hill has released since Breathe in 1999.

Which isn't to say that Carrie Underwood is as compelling or as distinctive as a personality or vocalist as Faith Hill: Underwood is still developing her own style and, for as good a singer as she is, she doesn't have much of a persona beyond that of the girl next door made good. But that's enough to make Some Hearts work, since she's surrounded by professionals, headed by producers Mark Bright and Dann Huff, who know how to exploit that persona effectively. While some of the songs drift a little bit toward the generic, especially in regard to the adult contemporary ballads, most of the material is slick, sturdy, and memorable, delivered with conviction by Underwood. She sounds equally convincing on such sentimental fare as "Jesus, Take the Wheel" as on the soaring pop "Some Hearts," and even if she doesn't exactly sound tough on the strutting "Before He Cheats," she does growl with a fair amount of passion. In fact, the worst thing here is her chart-topping post-American Idol hit "Inside Your Heaven," which is as formulaic as the mainstream country-pop that comprises the rest of Some Hearts, but with one crucial difference: the formula doesn't work, the song is too sappy and transparent, the arrangement too cold. On the rest of Some Hearts, everything clicks -- the production is warm, the tunes inoffensive but ingratiating, it straddles the country and pop worlds with ease, and most importantly, it's every bit as likeable as Carrie was on American Idol. Which means that even if she's not nearly as sassy or charismatic as Kelly Clarkson -- she's not as spunky as Nashville Star finalist Miranda Lambert, for that matter -- Carrie Underwood has delivered the best post-AmIdol record since Clarkson's debut.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Taking The Long Way

Dixie Chicks
The road leading away from Home, the Dixie Chicks' acclaimed 2002 return to straight-ahead country, proved to be quite rocky for the Texan trio, largely due to anti-George W. Bush and antiwar comments lead singer Natalie Maines made during the long crawl to the 2003 Iraqi War. Maines' words, initially spoken off the cuff in concert but then repeated in numerous interviews, earned her plenty of enemies within the country community (most notably Toby Keith), but despite the hailstorm of publicity, Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison did not back down, even as their country audience slowly diminished. But by that point, the Dixie Chicks were bigger than a mere country act anyway: they were international superstars. Their sound and sensibility played to an audience that was much bigger and more self-consciously sophisticated than the country audience, so their shift from country to pop on 2006's Taking the Long Way feels natural; even the neo-bluegrass of Home felt like a kindred spirit to the alt-country movement and such AAA singer/songwriters as Sheryl Crow, not the pure bluegrass of Ricky Skaggs, or even the progressive Alison Krauss. Given the controversy of 2003, the conscious distancing from country makes sense -- and given songs like the defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice" and the redneck-baiting "Lubbock or Live It," the Dixie Chicks don't sound like they're in retreat on Taking the Long Way, either; they merely sound like they're being themselves. And Taking the Long Way is as genuine a Dixie Chicks album as Home or Wide Open Spaces, feeling like an accurate reflection of the trio's current life. They are now savvy, sophisticated urbanites -- the album cover makes it seem like they've stepped out of Sex and the City -- and the music reflects that. It's rooted in country -- or more specifically country-rock -- and it wouldn't sound out of place in Nashville, but sounds more suited for upscale apartments and coffeehouses. The sound might be a little more NPR than hot country, but the trio's harmonies still shine brightly, they still play with conviction, and they still have a strong body of songs here. No doubt reflecting the influence of producer Rick Rubin, the Chicks work with songwriters well outside of the Music Row mainstream: naturally, Sheryl Crow makes an appearance as a co-writer here, but so does acclaimed pop tunesmith Neil Finn, alt-country mainstay Gary Louris, bluesman Keb' Mo', Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, and through much of the album, Semisonic/Trip Shakespeare frontman Dan Wilson. All are accomplished songwriters whose strengths may not seem to lie in country, but they all know how to structure a song, and they help give the group direction and the album focus. Rubin's skill on picking collaborators for the trio makes up for his typically flat production -- it's clean and classy but not colorful, which it begs to be, given that this is a pop album filled with different styles and textures from rollicking rock & roll to soulful laments to sweet ballads. But this lack of zest in the production is forgivable because Taking the Long Way is otherwise a strong, confident affair that is far from suggesting the Dixie Chicks are being cowardly for moving away from country. Rather, they're bravely asserting their identity through this varied, successful crossover move.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Only By The Night

Kings of Leon
With 2007's Because of the Times, Kings of Leon ventured out of the garage and into the arena. Tracks like "Black Thumbnail" and "Camaro" were bold, anthemic rock songs that built upon the barnyard stomp of Youth & Young Manhood, and Because of the Times topped the U.K. charts upon its debut, officially crowning the Kings as rock & roll royalty in the process. Only by the Night arrived one year later, marking the band's fastest turnaround between albums; it also furthered the epic sound that Times introduced, flaunting a set of ringing guitars and radio-ready melodies that pushed the band away from the Allman Brothers' camp. If anything, much of the album took up residence in U2's cathedral, particularly during the one-two-three punch of "Sex on Fire," "Use Somebody," and "Manhattan." Appropriately, Only by the Night became a U2-sized smash on both sides of the Atlantic, selling some six million copies worldwide while firmly pushing the band into the mainstream.

Like many big-sounding albums, Only by the Night is a polarizing piece of work, one that targets new fans at the expense of those who wish Kings of Leon had never shaved their beards or discovered post-'70s rock. To rope in the skeptics, the strongest tracks are pushed toward the album's first half. "Crawl" flexes the band's rock & roll muscle, melding Led Zeppelin-styled crunch with the experimental guitar buzz of U2's Achtung Baby, while "Sex on Fire" makes up for its goofy title with a meteoric chorus tailored to Caleb's voice. (He sounds fantastic throughout the record, even if his vocals continue to be garbled by some untraceable accent, as if he's auditioning for the Jodie Foster role in a Broadway adaptation of Nell.) Rounding out the hit-filled segment are "Use Somebody" and "Manhattan," where Matthew Followill cloaks his guitar riffs in reverb and bassist Jared Followill takes the spotlight sporadically, popping up for quick melodic fills before ducking back into the mix. While past Kings of Leon albums concerned themselves with alcohol, women, and other hedonistic themes, those two songs are nothing but pop/rock grandeur, and Caleb howls their hopeful lyrics like Bono's American-born cousin. Only by the Night focuses on textures and experimentation during the album's latter half, but most songs still deliver some sort of Technicolor melody, from "Notion" (one of the only tracks featuring piano) to the unexpected chorus of "Be Somebody." Taken as a whole, Only by the Night targets the audience that approved Kings of Leon's sonic shift in 2007, leaving older fans free to damn these tracks for their consciously grand approach. Yes, the album is often cheesy. Yes, some of the more popular songs lost their luster after endless months of radioplay. But Only by the Night remains a potent Kings of Leon record, and the guys have never defined their ambition so clearly.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Kiss

Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen wasn't especially well known outside of Canada (where she was a Top Three finalist in 2007's "Canadian Idol" ) before she shot to stardom on the strength of "Call Me Maybe," one of 2012's definitive songs. The song's sugar-rush immediacy would have made it a huge hit at any time, but it seemed especially sweet as it topped the charts immediately following the gloomy reign of Gotye's angst-ridden breakup lament "Somebody That I Used to Know" during the early part of that year. Where Gotye's hit was all about regret, recriminations, and goodbyes, "Call Me Maybe" was an engaging hello to all the possibilities of a crush so strong it makes you do impetuous things, rising to the top of the charts just in time for summer (in North America, anyway). And while the song had had an undeniable, disco-tinged beat and glossy production, it also harked back to the unabashedly girlish, singer/songwriter pop of early-2000s faves such as Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, right down to the zippy strings that punctuate the hopeful question of the song's chorus. All of this made "Call Me Maybe" very different than the Ibiza-lite dance-pop that seemed to be the template for Top 40 hits in the 2010s (it's also interesting to note that Jepsen was in her mid-twenties when the single hit it big, making her a bit older than expected for the singer of such a seemingly innocent song, but then the wallop of new love is an all-ages feeling). If Kiss, an album whose title captures Jepsen's sweet but not overtly sexy appeal perfectly, only had "Call Me Maybe" going for it, it would still be one of 2012's most notable pop albums. A safer set of songs would have surrounded that single with ten or eleven clones of it, but Jepsen shows she can do other styles nearly as well, spanning the fizzy dancefloor fodder "Tonight I'm Getting Over You" to the catchy oddity "Tiny Little Bows," where Jepsen's voice sounds slightly sped-up and she addresses cities like old flames, to "This Kiss," which sounds the most like a typical pop single, but boasts lyrics (where Jepsen's boyfriend and the object of her affection's girlfriend are "details we both forgot to mention") that are better written than the work of most of her competition. Kiss also includes a couple of duets with established male artists, including "Beautiful" with Justin Bieber (who was instrumental in helping Jepsen cross over to a world-wide audience) and "Good Time" with Owl City, but Jepsen is best on her own, making the most of the savvy songwriting that runs throughout Kiss and shines especially brightly on tracks like "Guitar String/Wedding Ring." After a string of fantastical glamazon pop stars like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj, there's something to be said for Jepsen's girl-next-door persona, which helps make Kiss one of 2012's best, and sweetest, pop albums.

Heather Phares, 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

Talk That Talk

Rihanna
On her sixth album, Talk that Talk, pop’s naughty girl coaxes, teases and tweaks listener’s expectations. There are no stylistic or thematic breakthroughs, but she does keep the party going. Lead single “We Found Love,” featuring U.K. producer/songwriter Calvin Harris, pairs euphoric trance production with a chorus that hints at forlorn love. “Where Have You Been” is similarly buoyant and anthemic, while “Birthday Cake” and “Cockiness (Love It)” are provocative, the latter featuring a bare hip hop beat and the sassy chorus, “Suck my cockiness, eat my persuasion” and the taunting refrain, “I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it.”

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

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

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

Tha Carter IV

Lil Wayne
An interesting story came out as Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV leaked to the Internet five days early. Special guest Busta Rhymes, being interviewed from his tour bus, had not even heard the leak within those first 48, and seemed fascinated to hear that Bun B, Nas, and Shyne were also on his track. This was in spite of the his line “Tunechi, thanks for giving us a whole 'nother classic with Tha Carter IV” the album's final words, delivered by Busta during the “Outro,” one of two tracks on which Wayne doesn’t even appear. Busta’s mix of excitement and confusion perfectly captures this album’s magic in that there’s an electricity in the air here, one so attractive that you don’t care about what’s missing, so don’t hold this up next to Tha Carter II or III because you just might miss a grand Jay-Z diss (“Talkin' about baby money, I got your baby money/ Kidnap your bitch, get that how much you love your lady money”) while considering the differences. If II and III were the arguable masterpieces, this one is less convincing, but it is a solid, above average hip-hop album that would be in held high and wide regard if it carried any other name. Wayne seems to address this new, sometimes B+ era with “Some of us are lovers/Most of y’all are haters/But I put up a wall/And they just wallpaper” on “Blunt Blowing,” a track which is Young Money’s seductive and flossy version of the blues. If dazzling rhetoric and shameless bombast is what grabs his audience, it absolutely overflows during the album’s unstoppable first quarter, which boils over when the short blue mobster called “Megaman” shoots forth “Life is shorter than Bushwick.” The totally T-Pain track “How to Hate” is the album’s first speedbump, and Wayne remains a guest on his own album as Tech N9ne and Rick Ross dominate the following cuts, but the uncontroversial “Abortion” (“I know your name, your name is unimportant/We in the belly of the beast, and she thinkin’ of abortion”) puts the spotlight back on Weezy. After John Legend adds some purposeful polish, it’s all smooth sailing plus with those high Carter standards, bouncing between tracks fans can singalong and connect with (the pure and simple “How to Love”) or marvel at (“It’s Good” where Jay-Z diss meets Alan Parsons sample). In the end, Busta’s pre-cog declaration of “classic” is the download generation’s more “in the moment” definition of the word, and it is fittingly delivered while the venerated Wizard Weezy is out the door and off the track in that “pay no mind to that man behind the curtain” style. On Tha Carter IV, Wayne’s world feels more like a dream than reality, but the loyal subjects of Young Money get a wild ride and the great feeling of flashing those ruby slippers one more time. [The Deluxe Edition added three bonus tracks, including "Mirror" featuring Bruno Mars.]

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

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

Recovery

Eminem

Time Out Of Mind

Bob Dylan
After spending much of the '90s touring and simply not writing songs, Bob Dylan returned in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, his first collection of new material in seven years. Where Under the Red Sky, his last collection of original compositions, had a casual, tossed-off feel, Time Out of Mind is carefully considered, from the densely detailed songs to the dark, atmospheric production. Sonically, the album is reminiscent of Oh Mercy, the last album Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois, but Time Out of Mind has a grittier foundation -- by and large, the songs are bitter and resigned, and Dylan gives them appropriately anguished performances. Lanois bathes them in hazy, ominous sounds, which may suit the spirit of the lyrics, but are often in opposition to Dylan's performances. Consequently, the album loses a little of its emotional impact, yet the songs themselves are uniformly powerful, adding up to Dylan's best overall collection in years. It's a better, more affecting record than Oh Mercy, not only because the songs have a stronger emotional pull, but because Lanois hasn't sanded away all the grit. As a result, the songs retain their power, leaving Time Out of Mind as one of the rare latter-day Dylan albums that meets his high standards.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

The Band
The Band was a very album-oriented group, and only had two Top 40 hit singles. So one could argue that a single-disc greatest hits compilation, or best-of anthology as this might more properly be called, is not the optimum way to dig into their repertoire. But if you're limiting yourself to one Band collection and your budget or patience does not stretch for the two-CD To Kingdom Come set, this 18-song program hits all the famous buttons, including "The Weight," "Chest Fever," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Shape I'm In," "Stage Fright," and "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Naturally, it leans most heavily on their first two albums, which supply four songs each. Good, lengthy liner notes by Rob Bowman are a nice bonus, considering that single-disc career-spanning overviews often dispense with such frills. Strange, though, that "Don't Do It," their one Top 40 hit single other than "Up on Cripple Creek," isn't here; in fact, there's nothing from their live Rock of Ages.

Richie Unterberger, Rovi

The Band Perry

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

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Ceremonials

Florence & The Machine
The follow up to Florence + The Machine’s 2009 debut Lungs, Ceremonials is a romantic epic filled with haunting pop hymns. Heavy with heartbreak, sin, salvation, and spirits, Florence Welch’s vocals pierce like howling prayers. "I am done with my graceless heart/ So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart," she sings on “Shake It Out,” an anthem about setting the past free since “it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.” An all-around grandiose production, other stand-outs include “Heartlines,” “All This And Heaven Too,” and "Leave My Body," on which, joined by a choir, Florence illuminates: "I don't want your future, I don't need your past/ One bright moment, is all I ask."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

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

Breakaway

Kelly Clarkson
Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol winner and the first vocalist to achieve success, but her 2003 debut, Thankful, didn't completely define her outside of the parameters of the show. While the dance-pop and adult contemporary ballads on that record were fresher than the music on AmIdol, Clarkson still hadn't escaped the show's shadow entirely: since it was a hit so close to her time on TV, it was easy to pigeonhole her as simply a creation of television, not a popular singer in her own right. So, her second album, Breakaway, released late in 2004, was a pivotal moment for her, a chance to prove that she was not a one-hit wonder, a chance to prove that she could have a real, vibrant career. Happily, Breakaway delivers on that promise. This time around, the dance-pop elements have been almost entirely stripped away, and the record instead is a rock-influenced, MOR pop affair, not entirely dissimilar to Ashlee Simpson's Autobiography, only a little bit smoother and not as heavy on guitars. Since Clarkson is a better singer than Simpson -- not only does she possess more chops, but she has more on-record charisma -- she can sell the material even when the slow tempos in the middle of record drag its momentum; she prevents the songs from sounding too samey. While there may be one too many ballads here, they often are very good and sometimes are excellent, like the light, layered, yearning title tune. Clarkson may be a fine ballad singer, but what gives Breakaway its spine are the driving, anthemic pop tunes like "Since U Been Gone," "Walk Away," and "You Found Me." These are the numbers that sound simultaneously mainstream and youthful, which is a hard trick to pull off, and they are the tracks that illustrate that Kelly Clarkson is a rare thing in the 2000s: a pop singer who's neither hip nor square, just solidly and enjoyably in the mainstream. After a bunch of rather blah mainstream pop albums, including a glut of half-baked AmIdol projects, this is a nice, low-key relief.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

Genius Loves Company

Ray Charles
Genius Loves Company is the last studio album Ray Charles completed before his death in June 2004. Prior to this, the last studio album he released was Strong Love Affair in 1996, which was a stab at modern pop, filled with new songs and given an adult contemporary sheen. It was not one of his most distinctive efforts, even when judged against his latter-day albums, and it disappeared not long after its release. Charles left Warner and, years later, signed with Concord, who released Genius Loves Company, which had a decidedly different approach than the all-modern Strong Love Affair. As the title acknowledges with a wink, this is a duets album, which may be a little commonplace as far as latter-day superstar albums go but is still a step up from his previous studio album since it puts Ray Charles in a comfortable, relaxed situation that plays to his strengths. Instead of trying to put Charles in a modern setting, producers John Burk and Phil Ramone (Burk helmed seven of the album's tracks, Ramone is responsible for the other five, and their work fits together seamlessly) go for a clean retro setting with a few guitars, synths, and a rhythm section, occasionally dressing it with an orchestra or some strings. In other words, apart from the glistening production, it's not far removed from any of Charles' crossover records from the '60s, and he's also given a strong set of songs, largely familiar pop classics, from "Fever" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and "Crazy Love." His duet partners are fairly predictable -- classy newcomers like Norah Jones and Diana Krall, but also old stalwarts like Elton John, B.B. King, Johnny Mathis, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, and the ubiquitous Willie Nelson (who has never sounded older than he does here on "It Was a Very Good Year") -- but they're also reliable, never overshadowing Ray yet never shrinking in his shadow either; in short, it sounds more like a real duets album than most superstar duet records. The end result is modest, friendly, laid-back, and pleasing, one that remains faithful to Charles' music while sounding relatively fresh. It may not be weighty enough to be a career-capping masterpiece, but it's sweet enough to be an appropriate final album -- which is far more than can be said of Strong Love Affair, or any of the other albums he cut in the '80s or '90s for that matter.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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

Come Away With Me

Norah Jones
Norah Jones' debut on Blue Note is a mellow, acoustic pop affair with soul and country overtones, immaculately produced by the great Arif Mardin. (It's pretty much an open secret that the 22-year-old vocalist and pianist is the daughter of Ravi Shankar.) Jones is not quite a jazz singer, but she is joined by some highly regarded jazz talent: guitarists Adam Levy, Adam Rogers, Tony Scherr, Bill Frisell, and Kevin Breit; drummers Brian Blade, Dan Rieser, and Kenny Wollesen; organist Sam Yahel; accordionist Rob Burger; and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Her regular guitarist and bassist, Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander, respectively, play on every track and also serve as the chief songwriters. Both have a gift for melody, simple yet elegant progressions, and evocative lyrics. (Harris made an intriguing guest appearance on Seamus Blake's Stranger Things Have Happened.) Jones, for her part, wrote the title track and the pretty but slightly restless "Nightingale." She also includes convincing readings of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," J.D. Loudermilk's "Turn Me On," and Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You." There's a touch of Rickie Lee Jones in Jones' voice, a touch of Bonnie Raitt in the arrangements; her youth and her piano skills could lead one to call her an Alicia Keys for grown-ups. While the mood of this record stagnates after a few songs, it does give a strong indication of Jones' alluring talents.

David R. Adler, Rovi

Radio Music Society

Esperanza Spalding
Breakout jazz star Esperanza Spalding has crafted a mainstream neo-soul record that retains both her uncontainable positive energy and her complex bop harmonies. The bassist/vocalist/songwriter uses Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder as artistic touchstones and there's a groovy '70s vibe to the set, as if Anita Baker let her freak flag fly at Laura Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic." The pop guests include Q-Tip, Lalah Hathaway and Algebra (lead vocals on the pride anthem "Black Gold"), while the jazz genius of Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, African guitar sensation Lionel Loueke and others further uplift the set. Spalding tackles tough social issues on "Land of the Free" and "Vague Suspicions," and yet the entire album feels like a summer day (American Music Program, the seriously tight group Spalding played with as a kid, even appears on a few tracks).

Nick Dedina, Google Play

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

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

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Teenage Dream

Katy Perry
All Katy Perry wants is the spotlight, and she’ll follow the path of others to get there, raising eyebrows à la Alanis, strutting like Gwen Stefani, and relying on Britney’s hitmaker Max Martin for her hooks. She never breaks away from the expected lite club beats that transition from day to night without a hitch or the chilly, stainless steel ballads designed to lose none of their luster on repeat plays. Perry acknowledges some trends -- she salutes KeSha on “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” replicates Ryan Tedder’s glassy robotic alienation on “E.T.,” but tellingly avoids ripping off Lady Gaga. Perry is at her best when she’s delivering sleek singles like “Teenage Dream” and “Hummingbird Heartbeat” with efficiency.

Breathe

Faith Hill
"What's in It for Me," the first track on Breathe, Faith Hill's follow-up to her starmaking third album Faith, is livelier than anything on its predecessor, but that doesn't mean it's country, even if it kicks off with sawing fiddles. This builds upon the pop overtures of Faith and turns Hill into a full-fledged diva -- something that should be clear from the cover of Breathe, where she's moussed and styled like a supermodel. And Breathe is as bold and brassy as any big pop album, which only makes sense since this is a country album in marketing only: it's an adult contemporary album, as Faith was before it, but where that was a bit of a humble affair, Hill is perfectly comfortable with acting like a star here, belting out songs whether they're rockin' anthems like "I Got My Baby" (which could have been a big hit for Whitney Houston in 1985), effervescent pop like "The Way You Love Me" or a power ballad like "Breathe." She's still celebrating love instead of singing about heartbreak, and while this doesn't have the warm, cozy feel of Faith, it has a punchy, rousing feel that makes this an inspirational aspirational record -- something to push you forward instead of being happy of where you are. If Hill still doesn't have the gaudiness or hooks of Shania Twain, or the sense of fun, that's fine -- this isn't music for the weekend, it's for getting through the week, and it's as good in an office as it is at home, the defining moment of Faith Hill's superstardom.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Carolina

Eric Church
Country music outlaw Eric Church blasted onto the scene in 2006 with his jaw-dropping debut effort, Sinners Like Me. The North Carolina native quickly earned a dedicated following and a reputation for putting on a killer live show. Carolina, the singer/songwriter's 2009 sophomore release, is as raw and real as they come out of Nashville -- where style is often passed

off as substance. Like Sinners Like Me, Carolina is a from-the-gut collection filled to the brim with traditionally rooted country music that is masterfully tempered with Southern baked rock. From the floor rattling fury of "Ain't Killed Me Yet" to the heart tugging honesty of "Those I've Loved" Church soars higher here than he did on his critically praised debut. The characters who live and breathe between the chords and melodies in Church's songs are as authentic as the well-worn frets on his acoustic guitar. The guy on the chugging "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," who claims Johnny Cash would have "whipped" the ass of those country posers who insist on name-checking the late "Man In Black" in their songs, bears a strong resemblance to Church himself. Loud guitars, gritty vocals, and more soul than a Sunday morning sermon best sums up Carolina.

Todd Sterling, Rovi

Faith

George Michael
A superbly crafted mainstream pop/rock masterpiece, Faith made George Michael an international solo star, selling over ten million copies in the U.S. alone as of 2000. Perhaps even more impressively, it also made him the first white solo artist to hit number one on the R&B album charts. Michael had already proven the soulful power of his pipes by singing a duet with Aretha Franklin on the 1987 smash "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," but he went even farther when it came to crafting his own material, using sophisticated '70s soul as an indispensable part of his foundation. Of course, it's only a part. Faith's ingenuity lies in the way it straddles pop, adult contemporary, R&B, and dance music as though there were no distinctions between them. In addition to his basic repertoire of funky dance-pop and airy, shimmering ballads, Michael appropriates the Bo Diddley beat for the rockabilly-tinged title track, and proves himself a better-than-decent torch singer on the cocktail jazz of "Kissing a Fool." Michael arranged and produced the album himself, and the familiarity of many of these songs can obscure his skills in those departments -- close listening reveals his knack for shifting elements in and out of the mix and adding subtle embellishments when a little emphasis or variety is needed. Though Faith couldn't completely shake Michael's bubblegum image in some quarters, the album's themes were decidedly adult. "I Want Your Sex" was the most notorious example, of course, but even the love songs were strikingly personal and mature, grappling with complex adult desires and scarred by past heartbreak. All of it adds up to one of the finest pop albums of the '80s, setting a high-water mark that Michael was only able to reach in isolated moments afterward.

[Sony/Legacy’s 2011 deluxe reissue of Faith contains a remastered version of George Michael’s 1987 solo debut accompanied by a CD of remixes, single edits, and rarities as well as a DVD of videos and TV specials, all housed in a 40-page hardcover book. As one of the great pop albums of the 1980s, Faith deserves this kind of deluxe treatment, particularly because the inclusion of the music videos enhances the understanding of why the record dominated pop for two years. Michael had a knack for finding the right image for the right song -- the clean supermodel strut of “I Want Your Sex,” the smoky haze of “Father Figure” -- and that fueled Faith’s herculean reign on international pop charts. There was no wasted image and Michael had no wasted songs, either, his B-sides devoted to remixes or edits, the choice of which are included here along with instrumental mixes of “Faith” and “Kissing a Fool” and live versions of “I Believe When I Fall in Love” and “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” plus the excellent “Fantasy,” which wound up as a B-side for Listen Without Prejudice’s "Freedom! '90." Much of the bonus material is enjoyable, albeit in a time-capsule fashion -- nothing evokes 1989 like a Shep Pettibone remix -- but the real star of the reissue is the album itself. After 24 years, it’s still a gleaming, immaculate piece of dance-pop retaining its sleek, stainless appeal. The 2011 reissue of Faith also came in a trimmer edition that didn’t have the DVD or hardcover book, just the two CDs.]

Open Invitation

Tyrese
It’s been five years since R&B singer Tyrese emerged as his rap doppelganger, Black-Ty, and fumbled with his cringe-worthy double album Alter Ego. Back from his musical hiatus (he’s been busy acting, appearing in all three Transformers movies), Tyrese sticks to soul on Open Invitation, his fifth album and first from his EMI imprint, Voltron Recordz. Recorded in Tyrese’s California home studio in less than a month’s time, the bulk of the album was produced by Brandon Alexander, with Tyrese co-producing and writing on each track. While he made his name as a crooner with ballads like “Sweet Lady” and “Lately,” this album finds Tyrese spending more time in the club than the bedroom, although there’s still a fair share of late night seduction. “I Gotta Chick,” featuring R. Kelly and Rick Ross, is an up-tempo ode to a woman who will “do anything for me, that’s why I f**ks with her.” On “One Night” Tyrese’s search for a one night stand make his come-ons come off, perhaps befittingly, tipsy: “Have you drippin’ like water in the middle of a sauna/ last call, last call, last call for alcohol, meet me in valet…” Still partying on “Too Easy,” featuring Ludacris, Tyrese’s singing turns to bragging: “You can’t get what I get unless you got a passport because my swag is so international/ from Brazil all the way to Tokyo.”

While trite lyrics overpower his party tracks, Tyrese’s undeniably smooth, rich vocals shine on his slower grooves. The single “Stay” is a sweet love song, while “Nothing on You” is dedicated to a woman who trumps all the others. “Takeover” finds Tyrese saving the day for a wounded woman who just went through a breakup, and “I Miss That Girl” sounds like the kind of genuine regret sure to woo a woman back. On an interlude, Tyrese calls his “baby” and tells her he wants to “get into some vaginal activity.” She laughs, leading into the romantic ballad “Make Love,” on which Tyrese is in top form as he promises to find all of her secret places. In the vein of his motivational memoir How to Get Out of Your Own Way released last April, Tyrese closes the album with “Walk... (A Poem For My Fans).” A prayer that weaves into a poem, Tyrese asks for clarity, gives thanks, and offers insight: “You can often tell how far your life and career will go based on the five people that you spend the most time with.” He also admits that his marriage to God -- like his music -- is a work in progress.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

I'm Still In Love With You

Al Green
Each song is as good as the next on Al Green's 1972 classic, I'm Still in Love With You. Packed with profound intimacy and backed by stellar songwriting, Green's falsetto rises and dips over masterfully orchestrated soul arrangements, from the hit classic "Love and Happiness" to the buoyant testimony "One of These Good Old Days." As reverential as it is romantic throughout, the collection's stand out, "Simply Beautiful," is an unforgettable exaltation crooned in a hush.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Songs In A Minor

Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys' debut album, Songs in A Minor, made a significant impact upon its release in the summer of 2001, catapulting the young singer/songwriter to the front of the neo-soul pack. Critics and audiences were captivated by a 19-year-old singer whose taste and influences ran back further than her years, encompassing everything from Prince to smooth '70s soul, even a little Billie Holiday. In retrospect, it was the "idea" of Alicia Keys that was as attractive as the record, since soul fans were hungering for a singer/songwriter who seemed part of the tradition without being as spacy as Macy Gray or as hippie mystic as Erykah Badu while being more reliable than Lauryn Hill. Keys was all that, and she had style to spare -- elegant, sexy style accentuated by how she never oversang, giving the music a richer feel. It was rich enough to compensate for some thinness in the writing -- though it was a big hit, "Fallin'" doesn't have much body to it -- which is a testament to Keys' skills as a musician. And, the fact is, even though there are some slips in the writing, there aren't many, and the whole thing remains a startling assured, successful debut that deserved its immediate acclaim and is already aging nicely.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Falling Into You

Céline Dion
Celine Dion's Falling into You returned the Canadian vocalist to the top of the American charts, and for good reason. Although the album is formulaic, it's a well-executed, stylish, and catchy formula, accentuating her natural vocal charm. Dion shines on ballads like "Because You Love Me" and mock epics like Jim Steinman's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." Between those two peaks, she tackles dance-pop and love songs with grace; that effortless elegance saves the mediocre material on the album from being tedious. Though there are a couple of weak tracks, Falling into You is a remarkably well-crafted set of adult contemporary pop and Dion's best album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Duets An American Classic

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett has so many adoring celebrity fans it should come as no surprise that when a major duets album is planned, he's able to draw a roster of the biggest recording stars from the rock and vocal worlds, plus a pair of country music wildcards. (This despite the fact that he recorded an album with several duets in 2001, and a full-album collaboration one year later with k.d. lang.) One surprise is how well producer Phil Ramone paired Bennett with both duet partners and fitting standards -- among them Barbra Streisand on the optimist's anthem "Smile," Dixie Chicks for the flapper standard "Lullaby of Broadway," Bono on the wickedly spiteful "I Wanna Be Around," Tim McGraw on "Cold, Cold Heart" (the Hank Williams song that was Bennett's biggest country crossover hit), Stevie Wonder on his own "For Once in My Life," Juanes for "The Shadow of Your Smile" (which was a hit first for the Brazilian Astrud Gilberto), and Sting on the torch song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." (Even the title of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" seems fit for George Michael to sing.) Each performance was recorded with Bennett and his duet partner live in the studio -- it could be no different for such an old-school vocalist -- and the setup allows for maximum warmth and congeniality. Yet, aside from the novelty of the billings, Duets: An American Classic doesn't thrill like Bennett's solo recordings of the previous ten years. The arrangements of Jorge Calandrelli are heavy on serene strings that wrap the melodies in layers of soft gauze, and few concessions are made to the needs of the material; virtually every song is either a soft vocal pop number or a finger-snapping swinger. As befits an all-star affair, every edge is polished to a fine sheen and, more than a few times, the feelings his duet partners attempt to summon sound quite superficial. Of course, every vocal interpreter in the business sounds a little forced when compared to Tony Bennett.

John Bush, Rovi

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

Sinéad O'Connor
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got became Sinéad O'Connor's popular breakthrough on the strength of the stunning Prince cover "Nothing Compares 2 U," which topped the pop charts for a month. But even its remarkable intimacy wasn't adequate preparation for the harrowing confessionals that composed the majority of the album. Informed by her stormy relationship with drummer John Reynolds, who fathered O'Connor's first child before the couple broke up, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got lays the singer's psyche startlingly and sometimes uncomfortably bare. The songs mostly address relationships with parents, children, and (especially) lovers, through which O'Connor weaves a stubborn refusal to be defined by anyone but herself. In fact, the album is almost "too" personal and cathartic to draw the listener in close, since O'Connor projects such turmoil and offers such specific detail. Her confrontational openness makes it easy to overlook O'Connor's musical versatility. Granted, not all of the music is as brilliantly audacious as "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," which marries a Frank O'Connor poem to eerie Celtic melodies and a James Brown "Funky Drummer" sample. But the album plays like a "tour de force" in its demonstration of everything O'Connor can do: dramatic orchestral ballads, intimate confessionals, catchy pop/rock, driving guitar rock, and protest folk, not to mention the nearly six-minute a cappella title track. What's consistent throughout is the frighteningly strong emotion O'Connor brings to bear on the material, while remaining sensitive to each piece's individual demands. Aside from being a brilliant album in its own right, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got foreshadowed the rise of deeply introspective female singer/songwriters like Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, who were more traditionally feminine and connected with a wider audience. Which takes nothing away from anyone; if anything, it's evidence that, when on top of her game, O'Connor was a singular talent.

Steve Huey, Rovi

FutureSex/LoveSounds

Justin Timberlake

Battle Studies

John Mayer
It's no secret that John Mayer is a 21st Century Fox, wining and dining women all through tabloid headlines, so it's about time he delivered an album that traded upon his loverman persona -- and Battle Studies is that record in spades. Here, Mayer fashions a modern groove album that maintains a smooth seductive vibe so thorough it spills into a one-man band cover of "Crossroads." Mayer remains a disciple of Eric Clapton, but he shows an unusual interest in big AOR, creating a coolly clean blend of synths and Strats that's as much about texture as it is about song -- perfectly appropriate for a make-out album. Sometimes, Mayer dips too heavily toward texture, but he can't resist good, tight melodies and builds this album upon them.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Supernatural

Santana
Santana was still a respected rock veteran in 1999, but it had been years since he had a hit, even if he continued to fare well on the concert circuits. Clive Davis, the man who had signed Santana to Columbia in 1968, offered him the opportunity to set up shop at his label, Arista. In the tradition of comebacks and label debuts by veteran artists in the '90s, Supernatural, Santana's first effort for Arista, is designed as a star-studded event. At first listen, there doesn't seem to be a track that doesn't have a guest star, which brings up the primary problem with the album -- despite several interesting or excellent moments, it never develops a consistent voice that holds the album together. The fault doesn't lay with the guest stars or even with Santana, who continues to turn in fine performances. There's just a general directionless feeling to the record, enhanced by several songs that seem like excuses for jams, which, truth be told, isn't all that foreign on latter-day Santana records. Then again, the grooves often play better than the ploys for radio play, but that's not always the case, since Lauryn Hill's "Do You Like the Way" and the Dust Brothers-produced, Eagle-Eye Cherry-sung "Wishing It Was" are as captivating as the Eric Clapton duet, "The Calling." But that just confirms that Supernatural just doesn't have much of a direction, flipping between traditional Santana numbers and polished contemporary collaborations, with both extremes being equally likely to hit or miss. That doesn't quite constitute a triumph, but the peak moments of Supernatural are some of Santana's best music of the '90s, which does make it a successful comeback.

One By One

Foo Fighters
One by One is the most accomplished album Foo Fighters have made, which isn't necessarily the same as the best. Picking up the clean, focused sound and attitude of There Is Nothing Left to Lose, One by One is gleaming hard rock: it may have a shiny production, but hits hard in its rhythm and its impeccably distorted guitars. Dave Grohl's songs often express (or at least suggest) tortured emotions in their lyrics, but the album doesn't hit at a gut-level; it's too polished for that. It's not a bad thing, since the band is damn good and the production is more focused than any of the Foos' previous albums. The problem is, Grohl's songwriting has slipped slightly. It's still sturdy and melodic, yet not as immediate or memorable. Nothing is as majestic as "Learn to Fly," haunting as "Everlong," gut-crunching as "Monkey Wrench," or even as boneheadedly irresistible as their contribution to the Orange County soundtrack, "The One". Instead, it all fits together and sounds good as a piece, without offering individual moments to savor. Not the worst tradeoff, of course, but it's hard not to wish that the songs stuck in your head the way they used to, even if the album is still enjoyable as a whole.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

52nd Street

Billy Joel
Once The Stranger became a hit, Billy Joel quickly re-entered the studio with producer Phil Ramone to record the follow-up, 52nd Street. Instead of breaking from the sound of The Stranger, Joel chose to expand it, making it more sophisticated and somewhat jazzy. Often, his moves sounded as if they were responses to Steely Dan -- indeed, his phrasing and melody for "Zanzibar" is a direct homage to Donald Fagen circa The Royal Scam, and it also boasts a solo from jazz great Freddie Hubbard à la Steely Dan -- but since Joel is a working-class populist, not an elitist college boy, he never shies away from big gestures and melodies. Consequently, 52nd Street unintentionally embellishes the Broadway overtones of its predecessor, not only on a centerpiece like "Stiletto," but when he's rocking out on "Big Shot." That isn't necessarily bad, since Joel's strong suit turns out to be showmanship -- he dazzles with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances. He also knows how to make a record. Song for song, 52nd Street might not be as strong as The Stranger, but there are no weak songs -- indeed, "Honesty," "My Life," "Until the Night," and the three mentioned above are among his best -- and they all flow together smoothly, thanks to Ramone's seamless production and Joel's melodic craftsmanship. It's remarkable to think that in a matter of three records, Joel had hit upon a workable, marketable formula -- one that not only made him one of the biggest-selling artists of his era, but one of the most enjoyable mainstream hitmakers. 52nd Street is a testament to that achievement.

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.

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

Can't Slow Down

Lionel Richie
On Can't Slow Down, his second solo album, Lionel Richie ran with the sound and success of his eponymous debut, creating an album that was designed to be bigger and better. It's entirely possible that he took a cue from Michael Jackson's Thriller, which set out to win over listeners of every corner of the mainstream pop audience, because Richie does a similar thing with Can't Slow Down -- he plays to the MOR adult contemporary audience, to be sure, but he ups the ante on his dance numbers, creating grooves that are funkier, and he even adds a bit of rock with the sleek nocturnal menace of "Running With the Night," one of the best songs here. He doesn't swing for the fences like Michael did in 1982; he makes safe bets, which is more in his character. But safe bets do pay off, and with Can't Slow Down Richie reaped enormous dividends, earning not just his biggest hit, but his best album. He has less compunction about appearing as a pop singer this time around, which gives the preponderance of smooth ballads -- particularly "Penny Lover," "Hello," and the country-ish "Stuck on You" -- conviction, and the dance songs roll smooth and easy, never pushing the beats too hard and relying more on Richie's melodic hooks than the grooves, which is what helped make "All Night Long (All Night)" a massive hit. Indeed, five of these songs (all the aforementioned tunes) were huge hits, and since the record ran only eight songs, that's an astonishing ration. The short running time does suggest the record's main weakness, one that it shares with many early-'80s LPs -- the songs themselves run on a bit too long, padding out the running length of the entire album. This is only a problem on album tracks like "Love Will Find a Way," which are pleasant but a little tedious at their length, but since there are only three songs that aren't hits, it's a minor problem. All the hits showcase Lionel Richie at his best, as does Can't Slow Down as a whole.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

By The Time I Get To Phoenix

Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell's commercial breakthrough came by way of the title track, which was the direct precursor in production terms to "Wichita Lineman," and by the same writer. The cover of Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" is sincere if a little perfunctory, but Campbell's rendition of Ernest Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes" is a bravura performance, rich and soulful, as well as recalling Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" as done by Gerry & the Pacemakers. "Cold December in Your Heart" harks back to Campbell's country-folk material, a piece of midtempo country-pop. Material like that and the similar "Back in the Race," Dorsey Burnette's "Hey Little One," Jerry Reed's "You're Young and You'll Forget," and Bill Anderson's "Bad Seed" hold up better than more pop-focused numbers like "My Baby's Gone," though the string backings on most of these very much date them. The final number here, the touching "Love Is a Lonesome River," makes a brilliant coda. By the Time I Get to Phoenix was reissued in August of 2001 in a newly remastered, upgraded edition, with somewhat crisper sound, as part of Capitol-Nashville's Cornerstones series.

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Nick Of Time

Bonnie Raitt
Prior to Nick of Time, Bonnie Raitt had been a reliable cult artist, delivering a string of solid records that were moderate successes and usually musically satisfying. From her 1971 debut through 1982's Green Light, she had a solid streak, but 1986's Nine Lives snapped it, falling far short of her usual potential. Therefore, it shouldn't have been a surprise when Raitt decided to craft its follow-up as a major comeback, collaborating with producer Don Was on Nick of Time. At the time, the pairing seemed a little odd, since he was primarily known for the weird hipster funk of Was (Not Was) and the B-52's' quirky eponymous debut, but the match turned out to be inspired. Was used Raitt's classic early-'70s records as a blueprint, choosing to update the sound with a smooth, professional production and a batch of excellent contemporary songs. In this context, Raitt flourishes; she never rocks too hard, but there is grit to her singing and playing, even when the surfaces are clean and inviting. And while she only has two original songs here, Nick of Time plays like autobiography, which is a testament to the power of the songs, performances, and productions. It was a great comeback album that made for a great story, but the record never would have been a blockbuster success if it wasn't for the music, which is among the finest Raitt ever made. She must have realized this, since Nick of Time served as the blueprint for the majority of her '90s albums.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Higher Ground (Real World Gold)

The Blind Boys Of Alabama
Higher Ground, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama's second album for Real World, is even more of a crossover effort than 1997's Spirit of the Century. It sports a classics-heavy track listing, including great choices of inspirational material from R&B legends Stevie Wonder ("Higher Ground"), Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready"), Aretha Franklin ("Spirit in the Dark"), Prince ("The Cross"), Jimmy Cliff ("Many Rivers to Cross"), and George Clinton ("You and Your Folks"). Another inspired choice is the backing band, sacred-steel guitarist Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who provides a rock-solid rhythm, yet also lends the feeling necessary to frame the vocals. Leads Clarence Fountain and George Scott, who've been performing together for over 50 years, direct the ensemble with gospel fire; Fountain's original, "Stand by Me," is a rollicking jubilee number done with all the energy of his mid-'50s performances. Elsewhere, Randolph contributes some great licks to "I May Not Can Se," another group original, and Ben Harper stops by to deliver a piercing high tenor on "People Get Ready."

John Bush, Rovi