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.]