The Love Movement

Lovers Rock

Sade
Three years after the release of Sade's Lovers Rock album and a year after her Lovers Live video, Epic bundled the two into a nice double-disc CD/DVD package. It's definitely the full Sade package, albeit the latter-day Sade package, capturing her in the prime of her third decade running, nearly 20 years after she made her smashing debut with Diamond Life in 1984. More than anything, it's amazing to hear (and see) her perform with such grace after so many years. You could pose a really strong argument here that Sade has never sounded better than she does on beautiful new songs like "Somebody Already Broke My Heart." And her performances of classic songs like "Jezebel" on Lovers Live makes them sound as fresh as they did way back in the day. Though Lovers Rock and Lovers Live are fine releases on their own, they make for a splendid two-fer, particularly for old Sade fans who stopped following her at the turn of the decade (whether at the dusk of the '80s or '90s). It's perhaps no coincidence then that Epic released Lovers Rock/Lovers Live just in time for the 2003 holiday season. It's a perfect gift for those many old Sade fans who still associate her solely with songs like "Smooth Operator" and "The Sweetest Taboo." Those forgivably out-of-touch listeners will surely be delighted to know that Sade never fell off over the years, even if her media presence did.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Kaleidoscope Dream

Miguel
Elements of Miguel's second album started to reach the public around the time "Lotus Flower Bomb," the singer's collaboration with Wale, began to overstay its welcome on mainstream urban radio. From late February 2012 through that April, Miguel released a trio of free three-song EPs dubbed Art Dealer Chic. Altogether, the material was funkier and weirder than that of All I Want Is You. The high points eclipsed that album's singles, and some out-there moments confirmed that the freaky and daring qualities of "Teach Me" were not simply dabblings. Kaleidoscope Dream includes some of the ADC songs in varying form, as well as the six songs from the July and September album-preview EPs. The small quantity of new material makes Kaleidoscope Dream anticlimactic for some. For them, the trade-off is that they heard the majority of 2012's most pleasurable pop-R&B album digital Advent calendar style. It leads with "Adorn," the singer's second solo number one R&B/Hip-Hop single; there's some atmospheric, mechanical/organic likeness to Marvin Gaye's 1982 ballad "Sexual Healing," but it trades lust for soul-bearing affection and carries some of the era's sweetest backgrounds and a knockout falsetto howl over probing but unobtrusive bass. That song and most of the others stay true to the album's title and maintain an illusory atmosphere. This sense is intensified by some unexpected touches, like an interlude where Miguel softly croons part of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" over synthesizer goo, and the hovering title track, which incorporates the bassline from Labi Siffre's "I Got The" (in a manner heavier than Eminem's "My Name Is") and some "Strawberry Letter 23"-like guitar swirls. There are instances where the lyrical content edges too close to "artsy" teenage erotic poetry, but no song is without an attractive quality, whether it's a heavenly melody, a riveting rhythm, or a boggling production nuance. The set is cunningly sequenced, too. The loose "Where's the Fun in Forever" -- atmospheric yet mostly drums and bass, with some cool and casual background vocals from Alicia Keys -- melts into ADC highlight "Arch & Point," which is something like a skeletal power pop number slowed to a seductively squalid prowl. In its new context, the back half of that combination sounds fresh. Miguel is listed first in the songwriting credits of each song, and he's involved with much of the production, but he gets valuable support from earlier associates Salaam Remi and Happy Perez, as well as the likes of Warren "Oak" Felder, Andrew "Pop" Wansel, Steve "Ace" Mostyn, and J*Davey's Brook D'Leau, whose baleful keyboards on the closing "Candles in the Rain" flirt with evil.

Andy Kellman, 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

Chocolate Factory

R. Kelly
R. Kelly was hardly a stranger to controversy in the early 2000s. In addition to being hit with 21 counts of child pornography in Chicago and 12 more in Polk County, FL, the beleaguered singer/producer faced various sex-related civil suits. All those scandals have, at times, overshadowed his music, which is regrettable because Chocolate Factory has a lot going for it. Emphasizing romantic slow jams, and not as ambitious or risk-taking as 1998's R. -- which is arguably Kelly's best, most essential release despite its own imperfections -- Chocolate Factory, like 2000s TP-2.Com, tends to play it safe. But that doesn't mean Chocolate Factory is without merit; what it lacks in ambition, it makes up for in terms of quality and craftsmanship. Many of the influences that have served Kelly well on previous efforts continue to serve him well on this 2003 release; influences that range from the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder to Prince, Babyface, and hip-hop. All of those influences were noticeable on Kelly's '90s albums, and they are still noticeable on Chocolate Factory. Nonetheless, Kelly has always been his own man; that is especially obvious when he features Ronald Isley on "Showdown" (not to be confused with the Isley Brothers' 1978 recording). Hearing Kelly and Isley side by side, listeners can easily see how Kelly is able to draw on Isley's influence while projecting a firm, recognizable identity of his own. One hopes that in the future, Kelly will come out with some more albums that are as challenging as R.; even so, Chocolate Factory will go down in history as a solid and pleasing, if somewhat predictable, addition to the Chicagoan's catalog.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Sinatra: Best Of The Best

Frank Sinatra
Finally, a disc that combines Sinatra’s hits for Capitol and his hits for Reprise! Of course, since Capitol is the label releasing Sinatra: Best of the Best, the collection leans heavily on his Capitol sides, but the addition of such ‘60s staples as “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “My Way,” and “Theme from New York, New York” to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Come Fly with Me,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Fly Me to the Moon” makes this 23-track collection a superb sampling of Frank songs everybody knows by heart. Initial pressings in the fall of 2011 included the then out of print '57 - In Concert, a heavily circulated (and quite good) concert performed with Quincy Jones’ band in Seattle during 1957.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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

Doin' My Thing

Luke Bryan
On his second album, Luke Bryan's thing is decidedly lighter and relaxed than it was on his 2007 debut, I'll Stay Me, with the uptempo songs veering toward funny odes to good times and the slower songs flirting with crossover power ballads. Tellingly, whatever disharmony there is between these two extremes -- lamenting that country is not a pristine John Deere cap nor mall-bought rebel flag, then singing a cover of OneRepublic's "Apologize," which brings him way too close to that very mall -- comes from outside writers chosen to give Bryan a crossover hit that he very well may get on his own terms based on the strength of the eight tunes he co-wrote here. Bryan never pushes his good-old boy or romantic sides too hard, sounding equally convincing when he's singing about "Drinkin' Beer and Wastin' Bullets," or when he's wooing a lover on "Do I." This light, easy touch helps sell those occasional contrived moments, but it's better showcased on his originals, where he seems like the good-hearted, slightly mischievous, boy next door who never wants to get goofy like Big & Rich or go to the Caribbean like Kenny Chesney; he only wants to stick around his home town and sing songs...and there's plenty of charm in that attitude, as evidenced by this ingratiating sophomore effort.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Celebration

Madonna
Madonna's run at the top of the charts lasted so long, longer than almost any other star, it's almost impossible to squeeze all the hits onto one collection. And so it is that Celebration, a single-disc, 18-track set that also has a companion double-disc expansion, misses a few songs, hits as gorgeous as "Rain" and as goofily camp as "Hanky Panky," but truth be told, they're not greatly missed on this parade of pop genius that's hampered only slightly by its non-chronological order. Out of order, it does emphasize Madonna's consistency, but the bigger problem with the collection is that it mixes up album mixes, single edits, Q-Sound mixes pulled from The Immaculate Collection, and a couple of stray odd edits and mixes. This is a mess, but not quite enough to dilute what is one of the greatest bodies of work in modern pop -- even in this mixed-up confusion, these singles are a joy to hear.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Born To Die

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

Crazy Love

Michael Bublé
Buoyed by the popularity of the hit contemporary pop ballad "Home," singer Michael Bublé's 2005 album, It's Time, clearly positioned the vocalist as the preeminent neo-crooner of his generation. Bublé's 2007 follow-up, Call Me Irresponsible, only further reinforced this notion. Not only had he come into his own as a lithe, swaggering stage performer with a knack for jazzing a crowd, but he had also grown into a virtuoso singer. Sure, he'd never drop nor deny the Sinatra comparisons, but now Bublé's voice -- breezy, tender, and controlled -- was his own. It didn't hurt, either, that he and his producers found the perfect balance of old-school popular song standards and more modern pop covers and originals that at once grounded his talent in tradition and pushed him toward the pop horizon. All of this is brought to bear on Bublé's 2009 effort, Crazy Love. Easily the singer's most stylistically wide-ranging album, it is also one of his brightest, poppiest, and most fun. Bublé kicks things off with the theatrical, epic ballad "Cry Me a River" and proceeds to milk the tune with burnished breath, eking out the drama line by line. It's over the top for sure, but Bublé takes you to the edge of the cliff, prepares to jump, and then gives you a knowing wink that says, not quite yet -- there's more fun to be had. And what fun it is with Bublé swinging through "All of Me," and killin' Van Morrison's classic "Crazy Love" with a light and yearning touch. And just as "Home" worked to showcase Bublé's own writing abilities, here we get the sunshine pop of "Haven't Met You Yet" -- a skippy, jaunty little song that brings to mind a mix of the Carpenters and Chicago. Throw in a rollicking and soulful duet with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings on "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)," and a fabulously old-school close-harmony version of "Stardust" with Bublé backed by the vocal ensemble Naturally 7, and Crazy Love really starts to come together. All of this would be enough to fall in love with the album, but then Bublé goes and throws in a last minute overture by duetting with fellow Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith on Sexsmith's ballad "Whatever It Takes." A devastating, afterglow-ready paean for romance, the song is a modern-day classic that pairs one of the most underrated and ignored songwriters of his generation next to one of the most ballyhooed in Bublé -- a classy move for sure. The result, like the rest of Crazy Love, is pure magic.

Matt Collar, Rovi

My World 2.0

Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber's My World 2.0 arrives just over four months after the Top Ten My World and is to be considered the second half of the Canadian pop star’s first release, rather than a true follow-up. It does pick up where the brief My World left off, as it mixes peppy dance-pop with lovelorn ballads, mostly within a pop-R&B framework. The ten-song set is led by "Baby," featuring Ludacris.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Al Green

The Ultimate Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross

Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

Maxwell
As refreshing today as it was upon its 1996 release, Maxwell's debut set off his career on a high note he's yet to surpass. Wispy vocals groove seamlessly over polished production, tracking a relationship from beginning to end. Bedroom favorites "Sumthin' Sumthin'," "Whenever Wherever Whatever," "...Til The Cops Come Knockin'" and the splendid midtempo "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" set a sophisticated mood. Laying the groundwork for the neo soul movement, Urban Hang Suite's expansive, mellow sound nods to '70s soul, pop and smooth jazz while imprinting its own sexy stamp on the musical landscape.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Woman To Woman

Keyshia Cole
Keyshia's latest could've been subtitled He Done Her Wrong because nearly every song on this album deals with relationship issues, primarily the cheating kind. While she doesn't actually cover Shirley Brown's classic '70s ballad "Woman to Woman," she does recruit Ashanti, and the two portray women dating the same man. Other guest appearances come from Meek Mill on "Zero," and Lil Wayne on "Enough of No Love," both playing the dog in the affair. Robin Thicke gets a somewhat better role as he and Keyshia struggle to define their love on "Next Move." There's nothing as memorable as, say, "Love" from her 2005 debut, but Woman to Woman finds her in control of her element, even if she has to suffer a bit of pain and anguish for it.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

L-O-V-E

Nat King Cole

Greatest Hits

Ginuwine
The only blunder made with the selections on Ginuwine's Greatest Hits is that it doesn't contain "Love You More," a sweet ballad that received a fair amount of play on U.S. radio stations and scaled up to the Top 30 of the R&B chart. Apart from that, there are no gripes to be had with Greatest Hits. It otherwise remains true to its title. The spread from Ginuwine's first five albums, released from 1996 through 2005, is fairly balanced. While another three or four songs could've been added to the program, it'll satisfy anyone with a moderate interest in one of the more successful male R&B vocalists of the late '90s and early 2000s -- one who handled the club tracks ("Pony," "Hell Yeah"), ballads ("So Anxious," "Differences," "Stingy"), and mid-tempo material ("What's So Different") equally well.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Looking 4 Myself

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

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

I Win

Marvin Sapp

Lay It Down

Al Green
The big question that greets listeners encountering Al Green's third Blue Note album, Lay It Down, is: what happens when you put that amazing soul-drenched voice in the hands of hip-hop producers Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots and James Poyser, and add a slew of superstar guests? Answer: a killer Al Green soul album. Thompson and Poyser weren't interested in straying far from the classic sound Green and producer Willie Mitchell created at Hi Records in the 1970s, but they did want to place it in a more contemporary -- albeit analog -- setting. Green cut his previous offerings for the label -- 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's OK -- with Mitchell, and the results were good, not great, albums because Green's sound was simply re-created nostalgically. Even though Thompson and Poyser have been very creative here with their nuanced percussive, textural, and dynamic touches, Lay It Down is more of a classic-sounding Al Green record than either of its predecessors. The producers are at the core of a studio band (on drums and various analog keyboards, respectively) that also includes Mighty Clouds of Joy guitarist Chalmers "Spanky" Alford (in whose memory the album is dedicated), bassist Adam Blackstone (Jill Scott), and the Dap-Kings Horns. Lay It Down is a slow-burning, solid groover of a soul record; its dynamics and textures shift subtly and purposely to keep Green's voice at the center of its sound. If there is a flaw on the set, it's that individual tracks don't assert themselves immediately. Green, Poyser, and Thompson were going for immediacy and feel: nine of the album's 11 cuts had basic tracks done in their first session. They achieved their goal and then some -- the album feels of such an atmospheric piece and is so present that it initially comes off as a whole. That said, there is no better place to spend 45 minutes than in Lay It Down's dreamy, sensual, gritty, and tender sound world.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

God, Love & Romance

Fred Hammond
Urban praise trailblazer Fred Hammond's 12th solo album, God, Love & Romance, is a double-edged sword. Disc one aims for the heart—fusing jazz, R&B and classic urban sounds into a lyrical litany devoted to love, not unlike classic Luther Vandross or Al Green. Songs like "My Lady and Myself" and "One More Try" reveal Hammond's determination to get real about relationships, with spoken word transitions added to the mix for dramatic effect. Disc two jumps with the Sunday morning funk-fest Gospel fans have come to expect over the past 30 years. "Better Love" and "I Will Lift Him Up" sparkle on the gospel side, proving the years have not taken a toll on his soul.

Melissa Riddle Chalos, Google Play

The Diary Of Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys
Since Alicia Keys' 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, was ever so slightly overpraised, expectations for her second album, 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys, were ever so slightly too high. Songs in A Minor not only kicked off a wave of ambitious new neo-soul songsters, it fit neatly into the movement of ambitious yet classicist new female singer/songwriters that ranged from the worldbeat-inflected pop of Nelly Furtado to the jazzy Norah Jones, whose success may not have been possible if Keys hadn't laid the groundwork with such soulful work as her hit "Fallin'." Such success at such a young age, even if deserved, can be too much too soon, since young songwriters showered with praise and riches may find it hard to see the world outside of their own cocoon. The very title of The Diary of Alicia Keys -- at once disarmingly simple and self-important -- suggests that Keys, like Furtado, took her stardom a little too seriously and felt compelled to present her worldview unfiltered, dispensing with artistic ambiguities and leaving each song as a portrait of Alicia Keys, the woman as a young artist. As she somewhat bafflingly says in her liner notes, "these songs are like my daily entrees," which likely means that these were indeed intended to play like unedited entries in a journal, a goal that she's fulfilled quite successfully, even if it does mean that the album often plays "as" a diary, leaving listeners in the role of observers instead of seeing themselves in the songs. This was a problem on Furtado's nearly simultaneously released Folklore, but Keys trumps her peer in one key way -- musically, this is a seamless piece of work, a sultry slow groove that emphasizes her breathy, seductive voice and lush soulfulness. Tonally, this is ideal late-night romantic music, even when the tempos are kicked up a notch as on the blaxploitation-fueled "Heartburn," yet beneath that sensuous surface there is some crafty, complex musicality, particularly in how Keys blurs lines between classic soul, modern rhythms, jazz, pop melodies, and singer/songwriter sensibility. It's an exceptionally well-constructed production, and as a sustained piece of sonic craft, it's not just seductive, it's a good testament to Keys' musical strengths (which can even withstand Andre Harris and Vidal Davis' irritating squeaky voice production signature on "So Simple"). What the album lacks are songs as immediate as "Fallin'" or as compelling as "A Woman's Worth," and that, combined with her insular outlook, is where Diary comes up short and reveals that it is indeed merely a second album. Such is the problem of arriving with a debut as fully formed as Songs in A Minor at such a young age -- listeners tend to expect more from the sequel, forgetting that this an artist still in her formative stages. So, those expecting another album where Keys sounds wise beyond her years will bound to be disappointed by The Diary of Alicia Keys, since her writing reveals her age in a way it never did on the debut. Yet that is a typical problem with sophomore efforts, and while this is a problem, it's one that is outweighed by her continually impressive musical achievements; they're enough to make The Diary worth repeated listens, and they're enough to suggest that Keys will continue to grow on her third album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Italian Love Songs

Dean Martin
The only surprising thing about an album of Italian songs by Dean Martin, the most overtly Italian of the Italian-American pop singers, was that it wasn't recorded until near the end of Martin's recording contract with Capitol Records. Maybe it was the success of similar albums by Connie Francis that convinced the label or the artist that such a collection could have commercial appeal, but given that some of Martin's biggest hits, including "That's Amore" and "Volare," had been Italian-flavored, it's hard to see why they would have needed convincing. In any case, Martin was typically convincing on this album in both English and Italian, whether re-cutting his hit "Return to Me" or trying an alternate English lyric for "O Sole Mio" ("There's No Tomorrow"). Listeners should be forewarned that this is not a collection of Martin's Italian hits, but rather a newly recorded album (circa 1961). Nevertheless, it is a good match of singer to songs, and it became Martin's first charting album on Capitol.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Love Songs

Kenny Rogers
MCA Special Products' Love Songs collects ten romantic tunes Kenny Rogers & the First Edition recorded in their short time together. It's hardly a definitive collection or a greatest-hits, and some of the tunes are marginally "love songs," but it's an enjoyable sampler thanks to such highlights as "For the Good Times," "Sunshine," "Are My Thoughts With You," "Last Few Threads of Love" and "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye." Those songs make the compilation worth its budget price, at least for casual listeners.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Astrud For Lovers

Astrud Gilberto
Astrud for Lovers is a strong collection of love songs performed by Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto. Her wispy and melancholic vocals are featured in a variety of settings recorded between 1963 and 1969 for Verve. The earliest tune, "Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)," is taken from the legendary Getz/Gilberto album that marked Astrud's star-making first recording. The rest of the collection finds her with Stan Getz again doing a sweet version of "It Might as Well Be Spring" in 1964, crooning a smooth "Tu Mi Delirio" with organist Walter Wanderley in 1966, fronting a big orchestra in 1969 on two songs taken from the Beach Samba album, and essaying the intimate "Mahna de Carnival" with just guitar for accompaniment. The album shows that while she had a limited vocal range she knew how to get the most out of it and that she was equally at home in many settings. Not to mention that the collection establishes and maintains a lovely romantic mood throughout! That is what they had in mind no doubt and they succeeded.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Billie Holiday For Lovers

Billie Holiday

Ella & Louis For Lovers

Ella Fitzgerald
Part of Verve's extensive For Lovers series, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong for Lovers features timeless duets from the '50s including "Nearness of You," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "Moonlight in Vermont," and "Dream a Little Dream of Me." There are plenty of Ella and Louis compilations out there, all of which are fairly good. This one is no exception.

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

Coltrane For Lovers

John Coltrane
If you came across a CD titled Getz for Lovers, Prez for Lovers, or Baker for Lovers, you wouldn't be the least bit surprised. After all, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Lester "The Pres" Young were all famous for their smooth ballad playing -- if you've been listening to Julie London or June Christy and suddenly find yourself in the mood for something comparable by an instrumentalist, those guys would be obvious choices. John Coltrane, however, isn't necessarily the first person that people associate with adjectives like smooth and romantic. Trane could be a very forceful, aggressive player -- some reviewers have described his playing as "angry" -- and during the last few years of his life (when he was exploring atonal free jazz), the saxman could be downright blistering. Nonetheless, the fact is that Trane was a magnificent ballad player, and it makes perfect sense for Verve to assemble a collection of his more romantic work. Released in 2001, Coltrane for Lovers draws on such Impulse! titles as Coltrane ("Soul Eyes"), Impressions ("After the Rain"), and Ballads ("It's Easy to Remember"). "My Little Brown Book," a Billy Strayhorn gem, is from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, while "They Say It's Wonderful" illustrates the triumphant nature of Trane's 1963 encounter with singer Johnny Hartman. Back in 1963, there were those who felt that Coltrane and Hartman, a very sophisticated crooner, were an odd combination. But in fact, the two provided to be every bit as compatible as Coltrane and Ellington. Again, Coltrane was versatile -- he loved to play forcefully, but that didn't prevent him from having a romantic side. Coltrane for Lovers doesn't tell the entire story where Coltrane's ballad playing is concerned; the saxman also did his share of stunning ballad work at Prestige and Atlantic. Nonetheless, this is an excellent collection that has no problem reminding us just how warm and expressive his ballad playing could be.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Louis For Lovers

Louis Armstrong
Though few listeners think of Louis Armstrong (or even Armstrong the jazz vocalist) as a lover man, his rocks-and-gravel voice perfectly expressed the wonder and bemusement of a love affair. The Verve collection Louis for Lovers compiles songs from three of his best latter-day works (I've Got the World on a String, Louis Under the Stars, and Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson), all recorded during his year-long stint with the label during late 1956 and 1957. Despite his brief time recording at Verve, Armstrong spent much of it on the Great American Songbook, revealing the poetic beauty of well-worn standards like "You Go to My Head" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)."

John Bush, Rovi

Nina Simone For Lovers

Nina Simone
This second of two Nina Simone compilations issued in 2005 (and third in two years), For Lovers focuses on Simone's crucial tenure on the Verve imprint. It's not a thorough examination of her career by any stretch, but it does feature what many consider to be ideal performances of two of her most well-known songs: "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Fans of Simone's work will already have many of these recordings courtesy of other records, but casual listeners wanting to hear the softer side of this revolutionary jazz chanteuse will find this an excellent place to start, and will want to dig deeper into her rich back catalog.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Bill Evans For Lovers

Bill Evans
As part of Verve's "For Lovers" series, pianist Bill Evans is spotlighted on 11 tracks recorded between 1962 and 1970. This romantic set of standards aptly highlights Evans' melancholic light touch, especially on "But Beautiful," "Spring Is Here," "My Foolish Heart," "Lover Man," and "If You Could See Me Now." Stan Getz, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Shelly Manne, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, and Eddie Gomez are a few of the impressive guest musicians who make appearances. While this certainly doesn't come close to painting a complete picture of Bill Evans' career, which spanned several decades, it does make a nice sampler for the novice at a mid-line price.

Al Campbell, Rovi

Hello Fear

Kirk Franklin
Last go-round, Kirk Franklin was dark and cathartic for The Fight of My Life, but for 2011's Hello Fear, despite the title, Franklin sounds much more positive (but still dedicated). On the cover, he stands at the edge of a rocky cliff, looking serious, ready to confront any obstacle. (After all, saying hello to fear is a welcome and not a withdrawal.) Inside, although Franklin definitely sounds a sober note during his spoken word narrative "The Story of Fear," the music is different: hopeful, inspired, encouraging. The album title is especially ironic given that Hello Fear features some of the most uplifting material Franklin has written in several years, including "Give Me," "Today," and the lead single "I Smile." Elsewhere, he reprises his 1998 classic "Something About the Name Jesus" with a part two that includes contributions from Rance Allen, Marvin Winans, and John P. Kee, and welcomes Marvin Sapp for "The Altar." The closer, a celebratory old-school bounce track called "A God Like You," is the perfect capstone.

John Bush, Rovi

Red River Blue (Deluxe)

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

Trouble

Ray LaMontagne
The best songs on Trouble, the debut release from songwriter Ray LaMontagne, draw on deep wells of emotion, and with LaMontagne's sandpapery voice, which recalls a gruffer, more sedate version of Tim Buckley or an American version of Van Morrison, they seem to belie his years. The title tune, "Trouble," is an instant classic, sparse and maudlin (in the best sense), and songs like "Narrow Escape," a ragged, episodic waltz, are equally impressive, with careful, cinematic lyrics that tell believable stories of wounded-hearted refugees on the hard road of life and love. Most of the tracks fall into a midtempo shuffle rhythm, so the words have to carry a lot in order to avert a sort of dull sameness, and when it works, it works big, and when it doesn't, well, LaMontagne is so serious and sincere about his craft that you tend to forgive him instantly. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek guests on "Hannah" and the sad, somber lullaby "All the Wild Horses," playing fiddle and adding vocals, and producer Ethan Johns adds drums and other touches on most tracks. The sound is measured and sparse, with few frills (a five-piece string section is used on a few tracks, but is never intrusive), all of which supports the emotional urgency of LaMontagne's writing. "How Come" sounds a bit like a rewrite of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright," and a couple of other cuts seem a bit labored, but overall this is an impressive debut by an extremely special songwriter.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Sam Cooke
Although it isn't as sublime as the definitive The Man and His Music, Greatest Hits still does a good job of rounding up the majority of Sam Cooke's biggest pop hits. Ironically, it doesn't have enough gospel or R&B cuts, skipping over such essentials as "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Ain't That Good News," and "A Change Is Gonna Come" in favor of such pop hits as "Sugar Dumpling." However, it has just enough songs that aren't on The Man and His Music to make it worth exploring for fans who haven't been able to hear some of this material before, since some of these songs have been out of print for years. Nevertheless, it's targeted for the curious and the novice, and even with its omissions, Greatest Hits does provide a reasonably effective overview of his pop career.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Concerto: One Night In Central Park

Andrea Bocelli
One Night in Central Park commemorates Bocelli's free, massive mid-September extravaganza in Central Park. Fittingly for the former protégé of the late Luciano Pavarotti, his choice of collaborators and material suggests a desire to test himself. The opera "Les Pêcheurs de Perles" pairs Bocelli with acclaimed Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and the former’s comparatively light tone is strikingly contrasted by Terfel’s rich velvet counterpoint. Elsewhere, Bocelli plays to his adoring fans with his biggest hits and other guests including Celine Dion, Chris Botti, Tony Bennett and the luminous soprano Pretty Yende. The album succeeds as a snapshot of Bocelli’s mid-career place in the opera pop pantheon.

Catherine M. Gollery, Google Play

I Dreamed A Dream

Susan Boyle
Amateur vocalist Susan Boyle became an overnight sensation after appearing on the first round of 2009's popular U.K. reality show "Britain's Got Talent". Boyle, who was born in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland in 1961, caught the judges (and the world) off guard with her masterful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical "Les Misérables", due in part to the unemployed and undeniably plain church volunteer's "salt of the earth" demeanor and country spinster back-story. Boyle attempted a singing career in 1999, recording a handful of demos that showcased her rich and expressive voice, but chose to look after her aging mother instead of pursuing the dream full-time. Within hours of her appearance on "Britain's Got Talent", Boyle was not only an Internet sensation, she was a world-wide phenomenon. Her debut album, I Dreamed a Dream, was released in 2009 and reached number one on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, setting a record in her homeland for first-week sales. I Dreamed a Dream was more than an instant success: it wound up as the second biggest seller of 2009 in the U.S. and topped charts throughout Europe. Boyle delivered a second album, the Christmas-themed The Gift, for the holiday season of 2010. Her third outing, 2011's Steve Mac-produced, Someone to Watch Over Me, featured a diverse set of hits, including takes on classics like "Both Sides Now" and "Unchained Melody," as well as more modern material from the likes of Tears for Fears ("Mad World") and Depeche Mode ("Enjoy the Silence").

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

8701

Usher
Usher has the reputation as a loverman, largely because he fits the bill so well. He looks good, his material is smooth and seductive, and he has a nice voice, even if he tends to favor melisma. This has been true throughout his career, and remains true on his third album, 8701, a classy, seductive affair masterminded by Usher, Jermaine Dupri, and Antonio "L.A." Reid. There's not much new here, but Usher does move further in both directions -- the ballads are lusher, the dance numbers hit a bit harder -- but not so much so that it's really noticeable. Overall, the record is probably his strongest yet, but he still suffers from a lack of really memorable material (the singles are usually pretty good, but the album tracks are filler) and a tendency to oversing. Because of these two things, 8701 is more mood music than anything else, and while it does work fairly well on that level, it's not memorable outside of that mood. [The DVD side of the "Dual Disc" special edition included the entire album in surround sound, bonus video content, and computer extras.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The R. In R&B Collection: Volume 1

R. Kelly
Creatively, R. Kelly came a long way since 1992. The Chicago singer started out his career with catchy, if conventional, new jack swing, but as the '90s progressed, he evolved into one of more interesting, risk-taking male singers in urban contemporary and neo-soul. It would be a stretch to say that Kelly is in a class with Al Green, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, or Marvin Gaye -- he's a product of a different generation and a different era, and he needs to be evaluated on his own hip-hop-minded terms rather than '60s or '70s terms (even though he has plenty of '60s and '70s influences). But it's no exaggeration to say that some of Kelly's work has been excellent, including many of the songs on The R. in R&B Collection, Vol. 1 -- a best-of release that paints a generally favorable picture of the Chicagoan by focusing on his more essential recordings. Many of Kelly's well-known hits are provided, and they range from "You Remind Me of Something" and "Bump n' Grind" to "I Believe I Can Fly," "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," and "I'm Your Angel" (the singer's unlikely duet with Celine Dion). Spanning 1992-2003, the collection shows how much Kelly evolved during that 11-year period. The thing that ties many of these songs together -- from the Guy-ish new jack swing number "She's Got That Vibe" in 1992 to "Fiesta" in 2000 -- is hip-hop, which has always been an integral part of the singer's output. Vol. 1 isn't the last word on Kelly's output; some major hits are missing, and the Vol. 1 part of the title implies that a "Vol. 2" is needed. But for the novice or casual listener who wants to have many of Kelly's hits in the same place, Vol. 1 serves its purpose nicely.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Sexy & Simple)

Mya

Faith

Faith Hill
On her third album, simply titled Faith, Faith Hill put all her chips on a big pop crossover move, picking songs by Diane Warren and Sheryl Crow to sing and giving the entire album a sleek, glossy finish that makes it as comfortable on adult comptemporary radio as it would be on country radio. This may not be country in its sound but it is in its sentiment, as it celebrates love -- there are no heartbreak songs here, just love songs -- hope and optimism, where "The Secret of Life" is a good cup of coffee, mom's apple pie and a beautiful woman: all things that make it comfortable, mature pop. Unlike Shania Twain, Hill never goes for big, outsized gestures -- there's no glamour or glitz here, nor is there much humor, as there is on The Woman in Me and Come on Over -- she goes for cozy and comforting, and while that can make Faith a little bit too warm and fuzzy (and despite its sheen, it does feel warm) for some tastes, it nevertheless is an expert middle of the road pop album, one that goes down easy, one that blends into the background yet is melodic and endearing enough to be listened to closely, and that's due to Hill's strong voice and open personality. This is before she became a diva -- it's what gave her that status and while that is a subtle difference, it is nonetheless an important one.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Around The World For Lovers

Various Artists
This edition of Verve's "For Lovers" series combines 11 classic themes of amoré and travel, featuring such legendary jazz vocalists as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Blossom Dearie, Arthur Prysock, Carmen McRae, and Brazilian pop/jazz chanteuse Astrud Gilberto. The remaining tracks are instrumental versions of "Corcovado" (Antonio Carlos Jobim) "Dear Old Stockholm" (Stan Getz and Chet Baker), and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" (Pete Fountain). While the majority of these previously released songs are vintage cuts from the '50s and 60s, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson's version of "Isfahan" was recorded in 1991. Around the World for Lovers successfully fulfills the promise of the title at a mid-line price.

Al Campbell, Rovi

Bossa Nova For Lovers

Various Artists

New York For Lovers

Various Artists
This 11-song installment in the excellent "For Lovers" series features compositions cultivated from the Verve and Decca archive paying homage to the Big Apple. The lineup here is top-notch and a veritable all-star list of jazz's finest: Ella and Louis kick things off in grand fashion with "Autumn in New York," and contributions from Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, and Mel Tormé. The performances are consistently wonderful and ideal in a wide variety of settings, and especially ideal for those strolls around the streets of Metropolis on lazy afternoons. And for those not lucky enough to reside or visit any of the boroughs, it's the next best thing to being there.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Paris For Lovers

Various Artists
Continuing their excellent series of ballads and slower numbers paying tribute to a city, Verve has issued this 11-song set of songs as lovely as the city being serenaded: Paris. The collection starts and finishes with tracks featuring Louis Armstrong, a surprise choice considering that Armstrong is widely recognized for his uptempo catalog and gravelly voice, but it works very well, especially with Ella Fitzgerald in tow for the opening "April in Paris." Spanning over four decades, this soothing, enjoyable collection ranges from legends to contemporary favorites and is ideal as a soundtrack playing in the background or for a wide range of other relaxing environments.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Rio For Lovers

Various Artists

Labour Of Love

UB40
Named after the unemployment form in England, UB40 was never the most creative or talented group of musicians. However, what they lacked in talent they made up for with an uplifting spirit and genuine affection for reggae music. This is never more apparent than on their breakthrough album, Labour of Love, in which they cover the songs of their heroes. They try to recapture the spirit of early reggae by singing songs originally released before the international success of Bob Marley. They manage to inject their own exuberance into every song; for example, they transform Jimmy Cliff's mournful "Many Rivers to Cross" into an uplifting song of empowerment. The song for which UB40 will always be known is their first number one hit in the U.S., "Red Red Wine," a cover of Tony Tribe's full reggae makeover of a Neil Diamond tune that miraculously turned the group into an international sensation. Although UB40 relies on standard reggae arrangements, this is their most enjoyable album as a result of the inspired vocal performances and the genuine joy they have for the music. A must-own for reggae fans.

Vik Iyengar, Rovi

Comin' From Where I'm From

Anthony Hamilton
After two albums recorded in the mid-'90s went unreleased and 1999's XTC was largely overlooked, former D'Angelo backup singer Anthony Hamilton's fourth bid for solo success, Comin' From Where I'm From feels more like a hard-won debut. Featuring savvy R&B production from the likes of Cedric Solomon and James Poyser of the Soulquarians, Comin' is a solid mix of organic period keyboards, guitars, and horns and cutting-edge "beats" and synthesizers. While some traditionalists may balk at the hip-hop-friendly sounds, it serves Hamilton well. Not only does it position him squarely at the forefront of the neo-soul movement, but it also allows him the aesthetic freedom to comment on a wide breadth of social and personal issues that harken back to the glory days of '70s soul without ever feeling dated. Listen to how the choir screams against Hamilton's throaty plea on "I'm a Mess," and it's hard not to think of early-'80s Prince, another artist who balanced a classic soul style with forward-thinking production. However, it is Hamilton's soft, earthy vocal style reminiscent of Bill Withers and gritty, personal lyrics evoking his youth growing up in Charlotte, NC that really carry the album. Like a more feminine-sounding D'Angelo with an eye for personal detail that would make Terry Callier envious, Hamilton's deft combination of world-weary fighter and sensitive poet plays out with both hardcore realism as on "Mama Knew Love," where he sings, "Mama knew love like the back streets/Used to wipe pee just to make the ends meet," and then urban humor on "Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens," in which he wryly proclaims, "If you want it (I can rock your world)/If you want it (I put the juice in Jheri Curl)." Comin' from where anybody comes from, this is a great album.

Ultimate Manilow

Barry Manilow
Unlike some other MOR pop stars, Barry Manilow never enjoyed the sort of swinging-hipster revival that made him a hot name to drop, ironically or otherwise. Incredibly enough, until the release of Ultimate Manilow in early 2002, there was no comprehensive single-disc hits package on the market -- a shockingly long wait for one of the most popular hitmakers of the '70s, hip or not (and clearly the demand was there; Ultimate Manilow entered the charts at number three). The 20 selections on Ultimate Manilow are arranged in the chronological order in which they became hits, and the emphasis here is on "hits" -- i.e., chart singles. Between 1974 and 1981, Manilow reached the Top 40 20 times, and 18 of those songs are present; the other two (minor early-'80s hits) were bumped by "Bandstand Boogie," Manilow's well-known version of the American Bandstand theme song, and "When October Goes," a track from his 1984 jazz-pop album, 2:00 AM Paradise Café. It's an extremely straightforward approach to a greatest-hits compilation, which is actually something to be commended given Arista's botched Whitney Houston best-of (where they omitted several songs to protect back-catalog sales, although that's not likely a concern with Manilow). So is anything missing? Nothing crucial; the only potential disappointment is for fans who love Manilow's detours into flamboyant, Broadway-style production numbers. The concentration on hits means that several great B-sides in that vein ("New York City Rhythm," "Riders to the Stars," "Beautiful Music," the endearingly awkward "Jump Shout Boogie") are not included. But that's really a small quibble, and there simply wasn't room for them anyhow. Ultimate Manilow lives up to its title by including everything a casual fan would want. The only question is, what took so long?

Steve Huey, Rovi

Greatest Hits: Lean On Me

Bill Withers

No Angel

Dido
The title notwithstanding, this debut from the former Faithless singer is pretty angelic-sounding stuff. You're bound to think of Sinéad O'Connor, but the comparison is as misleading as it is inevitable. Granted, Dido's ethereal vocals here frequently recall O'Connor; but Dido's music -- while inventively augmented with electronics -- is generally less adventurous. Ditto No Angel's lyrics, which focus almost exclusively on love, lust, and relationships. That said, the fact remains that this is an auspicious and highly listenable album -- atmospheric, seductive, and beautifully produced and sequenced.

Jeff Burger, Rovi

How To Save A Life

The Fray
The Fray were among the first of the flood of bands that combined the influence of British neo-stadium acts like Coldplay and Keane, the retro-AOR bands of the mid-'90s -- chief among them Counting Crows and the Wallflowers -- and American emo-pop bands like Something Corporate and Jimmy Eat World. The Denver four-piece has the requisite piano and flag-waving choruses of the Brits, the slick sound and unfailing conservatism of the AOR bands, and the over-emoted vocals and confessional nature that are cornerstones of emo. All the songs on their debut, How to Save a Life, sound almost exactly alike and also exactly like you would expect -- sincere, melodic, authentic, and bereft of anything surprising or exciting. This doesn't make for the kind of record that people will want to listen to over and over again but for modern rock, it isn't half-bad. A couple of songs, like "Over My Head (Cable Car)" and "Dead Wrong," might even sound good in the background of a WB teen drama.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Loving You More…In The Spirit Of Etta James

Leela James
After one album for Stax, Leela James returns to Shanachie, the label that facilitated the all-covers set Let's Do It Again. One could be forgiven for glancing at the back of Loving You More...In the Spirit of Etta James, recognizing that all but two songs were once recorded by Etta, and feeling let down that Leela, once more, is leaning on music from an era that predates her birth. After all, her previous album was her best yet and showed that she was coming into her own as a songwriter. However, Loving You More is both reverent "and" imaginative. It's not just the range of the source material, which roams from the earliest part of Etta's career (including 1961's "At Last" and "Sunday Kind of Love") to the later years (Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby," covered by Etta in 1998). It's also the boldness that comes with the number of drastic rearrangements, the most excellent of which is the transformation of the blues-gospel ballad "I'm Loving You More Every Day" into late-'70s/early-'80s-style soul-disco. The two originals -- "Soul Will Never Die" and "Old School Kind of Love" -- are sturdy enough to be mistaken for covers. Leela honors her hero and, yes, makes nine old songs her own. That's not easy to do.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Sweet & Sexy Soul

Various Artists

Watermark

Enya
Thanks to its distinct, downright catchy single "Orinoco Flow," which amusingly referenced both her record-company boss Rob Dickins and co-producer Ross Cullum in the lyrics, Enya's second album Watermark established her as the unexpected queen of gentle, Celtic-tinged new age music. To be sure, her success was as much due to marketing a niche audience in later years equally in love with Yanni and Michael Flatley's Irish dancing, but Enya's rarely given a sense of pandering in her work. She does what she does, just as she did before her fame. (Admittedly, avoiding overblown concerts run constantly on PBS hasn't hurt.) Indeed, the subtlety that characterizes her work at her best dominates Watermark, with the lovely title track, her multi-tracked voice gently swooping among the lead piano, and strings like a softly haunting ghost, as fine an example as any. "Orinoco Flow" itself, for all its implicit dramatics, gently charges instead of piling things on, while the organ-led "On Your Shore" feels like a hushed church piece. Elsewhere, meanwhile, Enya lets in a darkness not overly present on The Celts, resulting in work even more appropriate for a moody soundtrack than that album. "Cursum Perficio," with her steady chanting-via-overdub of the title phrase, gets more sweeping and passionate as the song progresses, matched in slightly calmer results with the equally compelling "The Longships." "Storms in Africa," meanwhile, uses drums from Chris Hughes to add to the understated, evocative fire of the song, which certainly lives up to its name. Watermark ends with a fascinating piece, "Na Laetha Geal M'Oige," where fellow Irish modern/traditional fusion artist Davy Spillane adds a gripping, heartbreaking uilleann pipe solo to the otherwise calm synth-based performance. It's a perfect combination of timelessness and technology, an appropriate end to this fine album.

Ned Raggett, Rovi

Love & Life

Eric Benét
Rebounding from the mess of his divorce from Halle Berry -- and the ensuing Hurricane of an album -- Eric Benet returns to what he does best on Love & Life: making music for love-making. Slow and sultry and steeped in Stevie, Marvin, Luther, and especially Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson and Prince's forays into quiet storm, Love & Life is a consolidation of Benet's strengths as a seduction artist. Arriving after the turgid turmoil of Hurricane, this is frankly a relief, as Benet demonstrates a lighter touch throughout Love & Life, shedding any suggestion of personal revelation in favor of courting clichés without blushing. For some artists, this might sound like a retreat, but Benet delivers this slinky romantic music with conviction, as if he doesn't quite realize that what he's singing is essentially boudoir boilerplate. Such quiet determination turns Love & Life into effective mood music -- something that might fall apart under close listening, but it was never intended for such scrutiny anyway.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Smooth Jazz Hits: For Lovers

Various Artists
Featuring top hits culled from the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, Smooth Jazz Hits: For Lovers is a solid collection of crossover jazz tracks. Featured here are cuts from such artists as Boney James, Mindi Abair, Jeff Lorber, Dave Koz, and others. This is a nice compilation for relaxing afterglow situations.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Josh Groban

Josh Groban

Recollection

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