Music's Legendary Voices

News Of The World

Queen
If Day at the Races was a sleek, streamlined album, its 1977 successor, News of the World, was its polar opposite, an explosion of styles that didn't seem to hold to any particular center. It's front-loaded with two of Queen's biggest anthems -- the stomping, stadium-filling chant "We Will Rock You" and its triumphant companion, "We Are the Champions" -- which are quickly followed by the ferocious "Sheer Heart Attack," a frenzied rocker that hits harder than anything on the album that shares its name, a remarkable achievement in itself. Three songs, three quick shifts in mood, but that's hardly the end of it. As the News rolls on, you're treated to the arch, campy crooning of "My Melancholy Blues," a shticky blues shuffle in "Sleeping on the Sidewalk," and breezy Latin rhythms on "Who Needs You." Then there's the neo-disco of "Fight from the Inside," which is eclipsed by the mechanical funk of "Get Down, Make Love," a dirty grind that's stripped of sensuality. That cold streak on "Get Down, Make Love" runs through the album as a whole. Despite the explosion of sounds and rhythms, this album doesn't add up to party thanks to that slightly distancing chilly vibe that hangs over the album. Nevertheless, many of these songs work well on their own as entities, so there is plenty to savor here, especially from Brian May. Whether he's doing the strangely subdued eccentric English pop "All Dead, All Dead" or especially the majestic yet nimble rocker "It's Late," he turns in work that gives this album some lightness, which it needs. And that's the reason News of the World was a monster hit despite its coldness -- when it works, it's massive, earth-shaking rock & roll, the sound of a band beginning to revel in its superstardom.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

All That You Can't Leave Behind

U2
Nearly ten years after beginning U2 Mach II with their brilliant seventh album Achtung Baby, U2 ease into their third phase with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. The title signifies more than it seems, since the group sifts through its past, working with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, all in an effort to construct a classicist U2 album. Thankfully, it's a rock record from a band that absorbed all the elastic experimentation, studio trickery, dance flirtations, and genre bending of Achtung, Zooropa, and Pop -- all they've shed is the irony. U2 choose not to delve as darkly personal as they did on Achtung or Zooropa, yet they also avoid the alienating archness of Pop, returning to the generous spirit that flowed through their best '80s records. On that level, All may be reminiscent of The Joshua Tree, but this is a clever and craftsmanlike record, filled with nifty twists in the arrangements, small sonic details, and colors. U2 take subtle risks, such as their best pure pop song ever with "Wild Honey"; they're so self-confident they effortlessly write their best anthem in years with "Beautiful Day"; they offer the gospel-influenced "Stuck in a Moment," never once lowering it to the shtick it would have been on Rattle and Hum. Like any work from craftsmen, All That You Can't Leave Behind winds up being a work of modest pleasures, where the way the verse eases into the chorus means more than the overall message, and this is truly the first U2 album where that sentiment applies -- but there is genuine pleasure in their craft, for the band and listener alike.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Girl On Fire

Alicia Keys
Since her multi-platinum hit As I Am, Alicia Keys has doggedly stuck to an emphatic, piano-based sound. Her Girl on Fire has a few concessions towards pop trends, like the Jamie xx-produced "When It's All Over," but she mostly delivers those big, torchy moments for which she's famous, as with the titular track with Nicki Minaj, "Tears Always Win" and "101." Despite a clunker or two like "Not Even the King," Keys confirms that she's one of the best at mixing personal reflection with universal themes, whether it's motherhood ("Brand New Me") or love ("Fire We Make," a duet with Maxwell).

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

The Future Starts Here: The Essential Doors Hits

The Doors
Although the Doors were really only together for four years, releasing six albums between 1967 and 1971, their impact and legacy is as lasting as any in the history of rock, and no band before or since has really sounded anything like them. Driven by Jim Morrison's frequently bombastic and sophomoric but always utterly fascinating take on the colliding orbits of sex and death, the Doors managed to sound big, dangerous, and edgy while still retaining a commercial viability, placing singles high on the pop charts through every stylistic phase of the group's existence. This concise set hits all the absolute essentials, and each of these 20 tracks is a classic, from the early mission statement "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" to the unambiguous stomp of "L.A. Woman" (for the record, the chant of "Mr. Mojo Risin'" was intended as a deliberate anagram of the name Jim Morrison). What sometimes gets lost in the larger-than-life myth of Morrison was his still refreshing directness with love songs, and "Love Me Two Times," "Hello, I Love You," "Touch Me," and "Don't You Love Her Madly" all retain a surprisingly tender strength and honesty even some 40 years after they were recorded. Then, of course, there's "The End," still one of the most harrowing moments in the history of rock (the mix included here is the edit version from the film Apocalypse Now), and the song that best illustrates Morrison's over-the-top but somehow appropriately balanced sense of how theater, drama, psychology, sex, death, pop poetry, and rock all merge into a single unavoidable spectacle. No band has ever done it better, or had the courage to even try.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Soldier of Love

Sade
Sade’s longest absence yet did not prevent their return from being an event. It at least seemed eventful whenever “Soldier of Love,” released to radio a couple months prior to the album of the same title, was heard over the airwaves. Even with its brilliantly placed lyrical allusions to hip-hop past and present and its mature sound, the single stuck out on stations aimed at teens and twentysomethings, as well as points on the dial that court an older audience. It was the most musical and organic, while also the most dramatic yet least bombastic, song in rotation. Crisp snare rolls, cold guitar stabs, and at least a dozen other elements were deployed with tremendous economy, suspensefully ricocheting off one another as Sade Adu rewrote “Love Is a Battlefield” with scarred, assured defiance. While the song was an indication of its parent album’s reliance upon organic instrumentation -- the band’s use of synthesized textures and programming is greatly diminished -- it merely hinted at the dark, even fatalist, depth of heartache conveyed throughout the set. On “Bring Me Home,” Adu is content in resignation (“Send me to slaughter/Lay me on the railway line”), while on “The Moon and the Sky,” she projects a bruised and angered bewilderment (“You lay me down and left me for the lions”). The focus at least switches temporarily to a loved one on “In Another Time,” in what resembles a love letter to (what is likely) a young daughter mistreated by members of both sexes (“Their whispers are hail stones in your face”; “Soon they’ll mean nothing to you”). Although the bleakness is tempered with themes of survival and recovery, and (just) one song that is truly sweet (“Babyfather”), a fair portion of the album’s lyrical content comes off as drained-sounding, only echoed with vanilla arrangements that are merely functional, restrained to a fault, greatly outstripped by “Soldier of Love.” Lacking rhythmic hypnotism and relatable most to those who are experiencing solitude created by romantic desertion, this is not your mother's Sade album.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Very Best Of The Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody

The Righteous Brothers
At 12 tracks, Very Best of the Righteous Brothers: Unchained Melody is considerably lighter than the ambitious double-disc Rhino Anthology, and it doesn't cover nearly as much ground; in other words, no "Rock & Roll Heaven" or any other '70s material is here. However, for those listeners who want a straight-up dose of the biggest Righteous Brothers' hits, this offers the peaks of their peak, highlighted, naturally, by "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Unchained Melody," "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration," and "Little Latin Lupe Lu."

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

IV

Led Zeppelin

It Was Written

Nas
For his second album, It Was Written, Nas hired a bunch of hip-hop's biggest producers -- including Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Stretch, and Trackmasters -- to help him create the musical bed for his daring, groundbreaking rhymes. Although that rhyme style isn't as startling on It Was Written as it was on his debut, Illmatic, Nas has deepened his talents, creating a complex series of rhymes that not only flow, but manage to tell coherent stories as well. Furthermore, Nas often concentrates on creating vignettes about life in the ghetto that never are apolitical or ambivalent. This time around, the production is more detailed and elaborate, which gives the music a wider appeal. Sometimes this is a detriment -- Nas sounds better when he tries to keep it street-level -- but usually, his lyrical force cuts through the commercial sheen. Combined with the spare but deep grooves, his rhymes have a resonance unmatched by most of his mid-'90s contemporaries. Because, no matter how deep his lyrics are, his grooves are just as deep and those bottomless funk and spare beats are what make It Was Written so compulsively listenable.

Leo Stanley, Rovi

Lotus

Christina Aguilera
On a quest to redeem herself after the 2010 flop Bionic, Christina Aguilera puts her powerful pipes back to work on Lotus. ''Spin around in circles on my middle finger," Aguilera taunts on the chorus of "Circles," and she stays in defense mode for much of the album, from "Army of Me" to ''Make the World Move,'' a duet with fellow Voice coach Cee Lo Green on which she demands "turn down the hate." Empowerment anthems aside, it's when Xtina lets her guard down, like on the sexy lead single "Your Body" and the Sia-penned ballad "Blank Page," that her vocals start to soar.

Legend (Remastered)

Bob Marley & The Wailers

Let It Be Roberta - Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles

Roberta Flack
The Beatles' song catalog is one of the best-known and revered bodies of work in the whole of modern music, and the depth, variety, and timelessness of the songs this once-in-a-lifetime band produced make that catalog both a marvel and a treasure. Everyone knows these songs, and everyone knows them in the original Beatles versions. Those versions are there, shining in stone, and even when they show up in remixes like in the recent LOVE mashup, the original recordings echo unshakably in the mind. Roberta Flack knows this. On Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings the Beatles, she tackles 12 of the group's songs -- 11 written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and one written by George Harrison -- and she knows full well that she's dealing with the ghosts of the original versions. She knows, and she addresses it by reconfiguring the 12 songs she's chosen to sing into fascinating new shapes and arrangements, not exactly escaping the original versions, but giving them a fresh new direction by jazzy shifts in the melodies, and pinning them to inventive and very contemporary rhythms and recording techniques. Flack doesn't treat songs like "In My Life," "We Can Work It Out," and "I Should Have Known Better" like they're made of museum glass, and because of it, she stretches them into interesting new corners. Not everything works -- Flack singing "Come Together" could never have been a good idea -- but what does work, and that's most of what's here, brings these Beatles songs delightfully into the 21st century. Even though the ghosts of the original versions still echo here, they support rather than derail what Flack does with them.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Synchronicity

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Aretha Franklin
While the inclusion of "Respect" -- one of the truly seminal singles in pop history -- is in and of itself sufficient to earn I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You classic status, Aretha Franklin's Atlantic label debut is an indisputable masterpiece from start to finish. Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. While the brilliant title track remains the album's other best-known song, each cut on I Never Loved a Man is touched by greatness; covers of Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears" and Sam Cooke's "Good Times" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" are on par with the original recordings, while Aretha's own contributions -- "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," "Baby, Baby, Baby," "Save Me," and "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" -- are perfectly at home in such lofty company. A soul landmark.

Jason Ankeny, Rovi

Number 1's

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

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Whoa, Nelly!

Nelly Furtado
Nelly Furtado's Whoa, Nelly! is one of those albums that's designed to be a surprising, precocious debut -- the kind of record that's meant to make a listener exclaim, well, "whoa nelly" upon the first spin. From that first play, it's evident that Furtado is indeed an audacious songwriter, not at all hesitant to bare her emotions, tackle winding melodies, and bend boundaries to the point that much of the record sounds like folk-pop tinged with bossa nova and backed by a production designed for TLC. Clearly, this is a musician with big, serious ambitions, a notion that is supported not only by her naked lyrics but especially by her singing. Furtado is a restless vocalist, skitting and scatting with abandon, spitting out rapid repetitions, bending notes, and frequently indulging in melismas. This, more than anything, makes her a bit of an acquired taste, since her relentless vocalizing can obscure hooks that are nevertheless there. Once you appreciate (or grow to understand) her quirks, Whoa, Nelly! unfolds as a rewarding, promising debut, albeit one with its flaws. True, most of those flaws arise from its naïveté: a tendency to push too hard, whether it's in piecing together genres in an attempt to create something original or lyrics that can sound a little sophomoric in their soul-searching. These don't arrive in isolated instances, either -- they're wound into the songs themselves. You either choose to be annoyed by these quirks or become charmed by them, realizing it's a first album, and savoring the talent that's apparent on much of the album. Many of her blends of pop, folk, dance, and Latin are beguiling; she has a knack for strong pop hooks (particularly on "On the Radio," "Well, Well," and "Turn Off the Light"); her lyrical imagery can be evocative; she has a sly sense of humor; and, when she doesn't get carried away, she's an inventive, endearingly eccentric vocalist. These are the things that endure after that first slightly bewildering spin of Whoa, Nelly! and those are the things that make you wonder where she goes from here.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Soul Sessions, Vol. 2

Joss Stone
In 2003, before the soulful vocals of British chanteuses like Amy Winehouse and Adele swept the globe, 16-year-old Joss Stone debuted with The Soul Sessions, a collection of covers showcasing a voice beyond her years and a surprisingly strong delivery. Almost a decade later, the sequel to Stone's debut finds the Grammy winner once again reinterpreting the legends, from Labi Siffre's "I Got the…" and Womack & Womack's "Teardrops" to the Dells' "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)" and the Chi-Lites' "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People." With a range even more commanding than before, especially apparent on her unexpected cover of Broken Bells' "The High Road," Stone's sixth studio album marks a welcome return to her classic soul beginnings.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Duets An American Classic

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

John Bush, Rovi

E=MC²

Mariah Carey
Two weeks prior to the April 2008 release of E=MC2 -- Mariah Carey's tenth album and the sequel to her big 2005 comeback, The Emancipation of Mimi -- the diva broke Elvis Presley's record of being the solo artist with the most number one singles on the Billboard charts. Lots of publicity surrounded "Touch My Body" reaching number one, as well it should: busting an Elvis record is always news, but this particular record served team Mariah well, as it paints Carey as being a diva who's bigger and better than the rest. An unintentional side effect of this very record is that it also tacitly pointed out that Mariah has been around a long, long time: 18 years, to be exact, roughly two years shy of the two decades that it took Elvis to establish his record. Unlike Elvis -- or any other major artist who's been around for two decades, for that matter -- Carey seems determined not to look back, to exist in some kind of eternal now, never acknowledging that she has a past, unless she's wielding her divorce from her ex-husband/ex-record label chief Tommy Mottola for some kind of sympathy, something she does once again here via vague allusions to naïveté and "violent times" on "Side Effects." Mariah refers to that separation so often that it's hard not to think of it as something recent but it happened a long, long time ago -- well over a decade prior to the release of E=MC2, to be precise -- but as the separation was the pivot point for Carey's career, it's easy to see why she keeps returning to it, even if the emotional heft of her singing about the pain has long since diminished.

After that separation, Carey restyled herself as a relentlessly modern R&B diva, chasing every passing trend in a given year, a move that often kept her on the top of the charts -- apart from the post-millennial stumble of Glitter, of course -- but had the side effect of making Mariah a musician who became progressively less mature with each passing year, culminating in the hazy soft-porn fantasies of "Touch My Body," the single that broke Elvis' longstanding record and will likely only be remembered for that achievement. Like so much of Emancipation and E=MC2, which is a virtual replica of its predecessor in almost every way, "Touch My Body" is all about sound, rhythm, and texture and not so much about song, something that helps sustain Mariah Carey's run at the top the charts, but something that also pushes melodic hooks, and in the process singing, into the background. As Carey's multi-octave voice has always been her calling card, the one thing that even her biggest critics have grudgingly acknowledged as her unassailable strength, this is a little odd -- especially on the T-Pain duet "Migrate," where she succumbs to auto-tune -- but it not only makes Mariah modern, it also camouflages her slightly diminishing range, so it does have a dual purpose. Sometimes all this production is good and occasionally it's married to a full-fledged, hooky song, as on the excellent "I'm That Chick," a sleek slice of Off the Wall disco that's nearly giddy in its energy and melody, and perhaps on "I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time," which also has a lightness that so much of E=MC2 lacks. Everything else pushes the rhythm and bass to the forefront and mixes Mariah into the middle, so it becomes a wash of sound -- sound that is designed to be fashionable, but like so much fashion, it's tied to the time and dates quickly. Which is why it's misleading to judge Mariah based on her new record of possessing the most number one singles, as she's not about longevity, she's about being permanently transient, a characteristic E=MC2 captures all too well. [E=MC2 was also made available in a Circuit City Exclusive version, which included five free downloads.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Another Country

Cassandra Wilson
On her 19th album, Cassandra Wilson, ever the musical chameleon, changes directions once more. She is arguably the greatest living female jazz singer. Well known for her blues, soul, pop covers, and jazz standards, her smoky alto bends almost everything to its will. Wilson's phrasing is utterly unique, as original as any horn player's or pianist's music. Another Country, co-produced by Wilson and guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, was recorded in three different studios in Florence, New Orleans, and New York. She wrote all but three selections here: there are two instrumentals by Sotti and a reading of "O Sole Mio." Other players include bassist Nicola Sorato, Julien Labro on accordion, and percussionists Mino Cinelu and Lekan Babalola. Opener "Red Guitar" displays the wisdom of this small-group approach beautifully. Her vocal illustrates a mysterious, sensual jazz blues that is accented by Sotti, hand drums, and an atmospheric, unintrusive accordion. "No More Blues" is more elegiac, a spacy jazz tune with fine syncopation and the suggested undercurrent of a blues backbeat. "Almost Twelve" is an ambitious attempt at bossa nova but it falls short. Wilson restrains herself to fit the song form rather than retrofit it to her voice; it's too much of a compromise. The Latin undertones in "Passion" work far better and the singer is able to engage her lower register and sing in near counterpoint to her accompanists. It's a heady, intoxicating swirl of lyric harmony and rhythmic invention. With its classical trappings and the prominence of the accordion, "O Sole Mio" should sound corny -- it doesn't. Wilson delivers it as a haunting folk song and reinvents it for the 21st century. The slippery meld of jazz, folk, and pop in the set's longest tune, "When Will I See You Again," makes it the most unusual and engaging track here. Wilson's compositional language is as imaginative as her singing, and Sotti's skeletal yet seemingly lush arrangements are sumptuous. The title track employs samba, post-bop jazz, and nuevo flamenco. Wilson's voice compels her poetic lyrics to assert themselves over the melody, as Sotti soars in his tasteful solo. Though there are a couple of missteps here, Another Country is a welcome new phase for Wilson. Not only are her boundaries as a singer expanding with her musical choices; her songwriting instincts and languages are developing exponentially as well.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Meet Glen Campbell (Bonus Track Version)

Glen Campbell
No artist waits 40 years to introduce himself, so the title of Glen Campbell's 2008 album, Meet Glen Campbell, can be taken with a grain of salt -- unless it's seen as a way to introduce Campbell to a new, younger audience, which certainly seems to be the intention of this record, as it finds the countrypolitan crooner abandoning the bland professional songwriters he's relied upon in the '80s and '90s and turning to newer rock & rollers. That these younger rock & rollers include Tom Petty and Jackson Browne should give some indication that this isn't quite as daring a move as it may initially seem, even if Campbell does cover the Replacements here, but daring isn't the name of the game on Meet Glen Campbell and thankfully neither is irony, as this never succumbs to the cringing camp of Pat Boone singing metal. Thanks to producers Julian Raymond and Howard Willing -- who enlist the help of plenty of modern pop thoroughbreds, including Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner of Jellyfish and Cheap Trick's Robin Zander -- Meet Glen Campbell evokes the soft, warm haze of his classic '60s and '70s, when he turned Jimmy Webb's eccentricities into pop standards. Although they do make slight concessions to modernity on the rhythm tracks of Travis' "Sing" and Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" (also tellingly the two weakest songs on this brief album), Raymond and Willing use "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" as their touchstones, picking songs that lend themselves to evocative melodrama, which generally means rich, elegiac ballads from Paul Westerberg's "Sadly Beautiful" and U2's "All I Want Is You" to Jackson Browne's "These Days," a song so perfectly suited for Campbell's voice it's a wonder that it never popped up on one of his LPs in the early '70s. Then again, Meet Glen Campbell is filled with small wonders, including how the Velvet Underground's "Jesus" is given a delicate acoustic treatment and how the Foo Fighters' "Times Like These" bears an arrangement that consciously echoes "Galveston" and is all the better for it. This reverence for Campbell's greatest work is what grounds Meet Glen Campbell, as it shows a deep understanding of what made those recordings work as pop records as well as an understanding of what a terrific interpretive singer Campbell is at his peak. For too long, Glen Campbell has been wandering away from these strengths, singing anonymous songs in sterile settings, but here he has the right production and an exceptional set of songs, all adding up an album that is alluringly out of time, caught somewhere between the '60s and the '90s, illustrating how enduring Campbell's sound really is.

Pavarotti's Greatest Hits

Luciano Pavarotti

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston
As big a hit as it was -- and it was a multi-platinum blockbuster, spinning off several chart-toppers -- it’s not easy to think of Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut as the dawning of a new era, but it was. Arriving in the thick of MTV, when the slick sounds of yacht-soul were fading, Whitney Houston is the foundation of diva-pop, straddling clean, cheery R&B and big ballads designed with the adult contemporary audience in mind. Houston’s background lay in the former -- actually, it was even riskier, encompassing a stint with the experimental Bill Laswell outfit Material -- and her benefactor Clive Davis knew all about selling records to the masses. Appealing as this album is, Davis may never have imagined how Whitney Houston would shift tastes, pushing toward skyscraping ballads where the singer’s affectations, not the songs, were paramount -- a move that later led to hollow records, but on Whitney Houston the songs were as important as the immaculate productions. Certainly, the showstopping “Greatest Love of All” provided the blueprint for decades of divas, but it’s the only overblown moment here, with the rest of the ballads -- notably “Saving All My Love for You” and “You Give Good Love” -- burning slowly and seductively, but what really impresses some 20-plus years on are the lighter tracks, particularly the breakthrough single “How Will I Know” and the unheralded “Thinking About You,” a dance/R&B hit co-written by Kashif that remains one of Whitney’s purest pop pleasures. These joyful, rhythmic moments faded away from Houston’s later work -- and also rarely surfaced on the records of those who followed her -- but their presence on this debut turns this into a fully rounded record, the rare debut that manages to telegraph every aspect of an artist's career in a mere ten songs. [The 2010 25th anniversary edition of Whitney Houston is expanded with five bonus tracks -- remixes of “Thinking About You,” “Someone for Me,” “How Will I Know,” a live version of “Greatest Love of All” from 1990, and a superfluous a cappella mix of “How Will I Know” -- and a bonus DVD containing music videos from the album, new interviews, and -- best of all -- Whitney’s star-making 1983 performance on The Merv Griffin Show.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Falling Into You

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

In The Heat Of The Night

Pat Benatar
With her debut recording In the Heat of the Night, Pat Benatar wasted no time starting out of the gate with the furious leadoff track "Heartbreaker," which solidified her place in a class of women who were taking the rock world by storm in the late '70s. In the Heat of the Night was an album that obviously had its share of filler, but the one-two punch of "Heartbreaker" and the John Cougar Mellencamp tune "I Need a Lover" leading off the album made enough of a statement to put her on the pop charts. The deflated three tracks following are easily forgettable, especially the sci-fi '50s ballad "My Clone Sleeps Alone," but the remainder of the album packs enough grit and solid songwriting (especially the Blondie-esque "So Sincere") that it remains an impressive debut and foreshadows a glimpse of great things to come.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Songs In A Minor

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Open Season

Feist
Though Leslie Feist declares in the liner notes to Open Season that initially she "didn't really understand what remixes were," she obviously was quickly acquainted with them and the potential they could hold by the time she started putting her album together. Open Season, a collection of remixes of some songs from Let It Die as well as collaborations with others, provides an interesting look into the possibilities of Feist's music. With help from artists like K-Os, the Postal Service, Mocky, and songwriting partner Gonzales, Feist's songs are reconstructed using new drumbeats, added instrumentation, and vocal effects, with each producer choosing certain aspects and emotions of the original to emphasize. Sometimes, like in Julian Brown's "Apostle of Hustle Unmix" of "Inside and Out," the results are sparse and haunting, while other times what is produced -- the Postal Service's version of "Mushaboom," complete with a Ben Gibbard vocal track -- is much more intricate and intense than the sweet daydreams of the Let It Die version. Usually these reworkings turn out quite nicely, exploiting the different facets of the songs for what they're worth. Only toward the end of Open Season, when production team VV (Gonzales and Renaud Letang, who also worked on Let It Die) take over and add dancey, almost house-like elements to "One Evening," "When I Was a Young Girl," and "Mushaboom," do things begin to sound a little cheesy and unnecessary, over-produced in that campy way, which is unfortunate, because most of the record is really quite good, including her performances with other artists. Her duet with Jane Birkin, for example, "The Simple Story" (which is also found on Birkin's 2004 album, Rendez-Vous), is lovely with its lush strings and chorus, and sounds very much like something Birkin would have sung in the 1970s. But more than its individual parts, Open Season as an album shows the versatility of Feist's music and voice, how it can move from near trip-hop to French cabaret and all those delicate spaces in between, and almost always sound just right.

The Natalie Cole Collection

Natalie Cole
This contains the finest soul and sophisticated pre-rock/pop tracks from Natalie Cole's days at Capitol (1975-1981). Cole made some superb singles in her early days, especially "This Will Be" and "Inseparable." At the same time, she laid the foundation for the early-'90s change that would surprise those who slept on "Mr. Melody" or "I've Got Love on My Mind." Her voice was actually more suited for these songs than the soul numbers, which were as much production and arranging triumphs as vocal victories.

Ron Wynn, Rovi

Bad Animals

Heart
Switching from Epic to Capitol with 1985's Heart proved to be a wise move for the Wilson sisters, who experienced a major resurgence in popularity and gained many new followers. Heart's arena rock sound had become even glossier, and the band was selling more albums than ever. But for all its production gloss (courtesy of Ron Nevison) and pop slickness, Bad Animals comes across as sincere rather than formulaic or cynical. From the rockers "You Ain't Too Tough" and "Easy Target" to the power ballads "Alone" and "Wait for an Answer," all of the songs are quite memorable. The folk elements and acoustic leanings that characterized many of Heart's early ballads were long gone, and the Wilson sisters keep the volume high but slow the tempo.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Harem

Sarah Brightman
Adopting a Middle Eastern flavor to enhance her blend of classical and new age pop, Sarah Brightman's Harem continues her experimentation with thematic discs that began with 1993's oceanic Dive. These themes, while never dominant or original, are simply meant to enhance her brand of crossover just enough to keep listeners interested in hearing her next project. Harem accomplishes that feat by shrouding new age pop songs in a thin Middle Eastern veil that disguises, but never completely covers, Brightman's true musical identity. It works well when she fully utilizes the theme, as on the opening title track where Brightman's fragile operatic voice is able to capture the traditional phrasing without sounding forced. But when the formula simply dresses up a pop/dance song like "The Journey Home," the results are less interesting and cross into territory already explored by the group Enigma and its worldly hits. Elsewhere, Brightman appears to have been taking classes at the Kate Bush vocal institute, sounding eerily similar to the English thrush on the quiet tracks "What You Never Know" and "Free," her writing collaboration with Sophie B. Hawkins. Retaining her classical leanings, Brightman successfully incorporates "Un Bel Di," from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, into the surging beats of "It's a Beautiful Day," her best attempt at creating a chart-worthy hit. Middle Eastern music stars like Kazem al-Saher and the late Ofra Haza lend an air of authenticity, while the tasteful arrangements by former Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman refrain from overpowering Brightman's voice or sinking into an Arabian parody. The disc gets a bit long by the time it reaches the unnecessary standard "Stranger in Paradise," but Brightman's Harem adventure is interesting enough to have listeners packed and ready to travel with her on another musical journey.

Boys And Girls In America

The Hold Steady
Those looking for Separation Sunday "part two" may be disappointed by the huge sound Boys and Girls in America has (the band's moved to Vagrant); it's not much of a concept record, and it's not as Catholic, but all those struggles are in here just beneath the surface (and sometimes on top of it). One of the ballads here, "First Night," begins with a piano and an acoustic guitar lilting a rather loose melody that gives Craig Finn the support he needs to get out of his pent-up, novelistic, wordsmithing mouth. All of these characters are young, desperate, and fleeing from their inner fear, except for Holly who is wise enough to tell the protagonist that "words alone never could save us"....and then "cried when she told us about Jesus." The piano fills out that unfillable hole in Holly and the rest, no matter where they run. Finn can do nothing but repeat his lines and find a last verse somewhere to let the song just fade into silence, because it never really ends. Boys and Girls in America is a sophisticated shambles. There's still a barely-on-the-rail feel, despite the literate compositions. Finn's always either behind or ahead of the beat, but it's alright, his bandmates can more than handle that because they're as engaged as he is. There are a few guests, and even a horn section on one track, and the classic girl group chorus call and response from Dana Kletter and her gorgeous voice. There's real sadness in the Wall of Sound and chanted chorus in "You Can Make Him Like You," which examines everything from addiction to betrayal, to the insecurity in love that can push someone over the edge, never to return. Thin Lizzy makes a return on "Massive Nights," complete with roiling bass as Finn opens the whole escapist mix, swinging and setting up a hedonist's dream: "The guys were feeling good about their liquor run..." There are low expectations and drama where only the music counts. The tune turns back on itself when the singer is trying to convince himself and the huge, wailing, responsorial chorus, that something so utterly suburban could be cool, until "She had the gun in her mouth/She was shooting up at her dreams/When the chaperone said that/We'd been crowned/the king and the queen." And it just ends. The chorus doesn't repeat. Elizabeth Elmore's and Dave Pirner's character triplet vocals on "Chillout Tent" help to create a sprawling narrative. Finn's the narrator, the other two are such broken and wasted -- even OD'ed -- people; they kiss urgently, which is alternately "sexy...but kinda creepy." The song doesn't really work, but it's brave as hell as an experiment. The reason this record is worth embracing, and even celebrating, is because it's an honest to God rock & roll album. It exposes in the first and third person what it means to grow up right now in the midst of suburban waste. It's angsty, but Finn's got a sense of humor, and the band can play their asses off. That they so readily embrace rock history as a means of unfolding Finn's stories suggests that "cool" and "indie" are simply terms in the larger dialogue. This is a smoking little record. Its focus is small, but reach is large; it's a winner.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Simply Eva

Eva Cassidy
Simply Eva is another collection of posthumous Eva Cassidy recordings, but with a twist: all but one of these performances was recorded with the artist accompanying herself solely, with an acoustic guitar -- either in Chris Biondo's studio or in front of club audiences between 1993-1996. Cassidy's devoted fan base has heard her perform the material before, but not in this way. Her live-in-studio readings of "Wayfaring Stranger," Christine McVie's "Songbird," Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," and Paul Simon's "Kathy's Song" (this one with all verses present) resonate with even more intimacy -- if that is possible -- than the previously released "finished" versions. The reading of "Over the Rainbow" featured here is the one from the Blues Alley performance from the Rainbow video. While Cassidy's version of Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" doesn't top the songwriter's, it does shine brightly, as does her brief a cappella take on "I Know You by Heart." Another surprise is this reading of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," which showcases Cassidy's fingerpicking skills and canny sense of rhythm. If you're a fan, you need this; if you've been wondering what all the fuss is about, the naked intimacy of Simply Eva is among the most convincing arguments yet for her posthumous reputation.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Mustt Mustt (Real World Gold)

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomehni banned all music in Iran and declared it to be sacrilegious, his views by no means reflected the outlook of all Muslims. In fact, Islam's Sufi sect believes music to be a sacred and necessary element of spiritual life. Like Hindus, the Sufis passionately encourage meditation, dancing and chanting. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a master of traditional Qawwali, the music of the Sufis. Soulful and hypnotic, Khan's passionate singing on these songs of praise underscores the richness and vitality of Sufi culture. While Qawwali music goes back centuries, the use of synthesizers adds a modern edge to the highly absorbing Mustt Mustt.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Nothing's Impossible

Solomon Burke

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