Play Birthday Discounts

Based On A T.R.U. Story

2 Chainz
Based on a T.R.U. Story comes at the peak of an unprecedented second career act. Atlanta's 2 Chainz, formerly known as Tity Boy, stumbled around the rap industry for more than a decade prior—as a Ludacris sidekick and a member of the under-appreciated duo Playaz Circle—before making a sudden and steep rise to ubiquity by way of freebie mixtapes. His solo debut is a work of distilled arrogance from a rapper with a very specific skill set. The story is a familiar one: drug dealer turns rapper, raps about the money and women that come from both, and the message is delivered mostly through smirkingly simplistic puns and an exasperated flow that burrows itself into listeners' brains via blunt repetition. But while 2 Chainz's rhyme style is firmly defined, he's yet to find similar footing sonically. Instead, Based on a T.R.U. Story jumps erratically around established post-millennial rap production tropes—from the quiet storm spaciness of Drake to the aggressive trap romps of Rick Ross.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Jesus Piece

The Game
By his fifth album fans know what expect from Game. The Los Angeles rap heel does a few things well—he seethes, he picks the right beats, he imitates his collaborators—and one thing endlessly: he drops the names of fellow rappers. So despite technically being a very loose concept album about church and religion, Jesus Piece doesn't actually introduce many new ideas. It's overloaded with guests, too—Kanye West, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne (twice)—and yet it inexplicably feels more focused and cohesive than its predecessor, the equally stacked R.E.D. Album. And when his tendency towards mimicry does set in, it sometimes creates a fascinating hall of mirrors effect. Like when he raps about 2 Chainz and in a 2 Chainz cadence while alongside the real life 2 Chainz. It only makes sense that Game's most original moments come when he's playing copycat.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

My Head Is An Animal

Of Monsters And Men
The performance that launched Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men in the States was an intimate, acoustic living room session recorded in late 2010 for (Reykjavik sister-city) Seattle's KEXP. Their full-length debut, My Head Is an Animal, similarly begins with just acoustic guitar and male/female vocal harmonies, but it quickly opens up into anthemic upsweep and choral shouts worthy of Arcade Fire, as the six-piece band expands from indie folk to booming chamber pop. There is odd instrumentation (accordion, melodica, glockenspiel), lively percussion and background vocals, and subtle effects of studio space; this is an album that announces Of Monsters and Men as a vastly bigger, and more ambitious, beast.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Talk That Talk

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

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

The Truth About Love

P!nk
"Blow Me (One Last Kiss)," the lead single from Pink's sixth studio album, is a catchy anthem about reaching a breaking point after "a shit day," while the chorus on "True Love" (featuring Lily Allen) plainly states: "You're an asshole but I love you." That edgy authenticity is what's made Pink's defiant pop stand apart from her peers, and on her latest album she's packing more punch than ever. While "Slut Like You" and "Here Comes the Weekend" with Eminem are weak links, Pink's performance is especially commanding on "Where Did the Beat Go?" and on ballads "Beam Me Up" and "The Great Escape." On the title track, she divulges "The truth about love is it's nasty and salty/ it's the regret in the morning/ it's the smelling of armpits"—her storytelling raw, angsty and as challenging as we expect it to be.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Lace Up

MGK
Though Cleveland rapper MGK built his grassroots following around a very specific brand of post-punk and pre-packaged rebellion, his debut album is a more scattered affair. Essentially, Lace Up is a series of genre studies in contemporary hip-hop that bounce from Roscoe Dash-style, sing-along swag rap to riotous Waka Flocka-inspired club bangers through Alex Da Kid-produced radio-friendly emo-pop tracks. While MGK's reasonably comfortable in tracing these steps, he's at his best when echoing the tightly-woven, blue collar gothic lyricism of fellow trailer park chic rapper Yelawolf. For all his bluster, MGK's greatest skills lie in his simple storytelling.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Finally Rich

Chief Keef
Chief Keef, Chicago's reigning street rap star, first came of age via a string of popular YouTube videos where he flatly sputtered heartless incantations about death and profit. On his debut album, the 17-year-old remains an inarticulate, mush-mouthed mess of a rapper, but when he sticks to the confines of this narrow skill set the results can be magnificent. His main trick entails hammering away at a single stunted cadence for the duration of a song as if to burn it into listeners' brains. The malicious breakout "I Don't Like" resonates for this very reason, and follow-ups like "Love Sosa" and "Hate Bein' Sober" stretch the same formula to more melodic ends. When Keef stumbles, he stumbles hard, and his lyrical limitations are especially apparent in the presence of elder guests like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. But maybe it's unfair to measure his success by the standards of past generations; the new rap language is nearly an indecipherable one.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Trilogy

The Weeknd
In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, released three free mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Trilogy compiles them with remastered sound and adds three new songs. Tesfaye expresses unapologetically sordid feelings about drugs, partying, drugs, bad girls, drugs, strippers, drugs, good girls gone bad, and drugs -- all of which serve an identical purpose and get the same level of consideration. There are points throughout these works where Tesfaye is distinctively gripping, supplying deadly hooks and somehow singing for his life despite the cold blood flowing through his veins. When this package was released, he was gaining mainstream momentum with appearances on Drake's "Crew Love" and Wiz Khalifa's "Remember You." His potential is as obvious as his lyrics are toxic.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Camp

Childish Gambino
In the time before this wonderful album named Camp existed, the “actors who rap” proposition would have been all red flags. Brian Austin Green, Mr. T, Joaquin Phoenix, and many others are on the “cons” list, while the “pros” would have been Drake (barely counts, unless "Degrassi: The Next Generation" was your thing) and maybe AVN award-winner Dirt Nasty. These were the horrible odds "Community" star and comedy writer Donald Glover was up against when he took the Internet’s Wu-Tang Name Generator to heart and became rapper Childish Gambino, but anyone who right-clicked on one of his 2010/2011 mixtapes can tell you, he beat those odds, and with Camp, indie rap fans won the Lotto. The gloriously different and wonderfully inspired rhymes that downloaders experienced are here once more, and Gambino’s style is still that attractive blend of heartfelt and humorous or, in a nutshell, I-just-wasn’t-made-for-these-times-and-yet-I-love-the-Internet with “That ain’t even ironic bitch/I love Rugrats!” being a quintessential punch line/decree. He’s got that Kanye-sized swagger on lock too, as the triumphant “All the Shine” struts with vibrant colors, and he's just as complicated, as the track slowly descends into self-doubt and earth tones before it fades into the soft and meek “Letter Home,” all of it adding up to some kind of bizarre and ambitious bipolar backpacker suite. Nerdy wonders and insightful laughs are the reasons you want to visit Camp Gambino, but you’ll stay for the lush, surprisingly large production from Glover and Ludwig Göransson, along with the thrill of untangling it all for hours on end, separating the incredibly cool moments from the touching ones and figuring out how this “actor who raps” packaged it all sensibly in a concept album about summer camp that doubles as his showcase debut. Try it and be stunned or submit to it and be satiated; Camp is like the Drake, Cudi, and Kweli camps all offered their best, but it’s really just Glover and his overwhelming bundle of talent, taking indie hip-hop to new levels after spending the day working alongside Chevy Chase. Remarkable.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Just A Little More Love

David Guetta
It's probably not right to compare David Guetta's full-length debut to a band that only had one tune, but Just a Little More Love is the breezy and slick album Stardust never recorded. You could point to Modjo too, but Guetta has that something extra that makes him more of a leader than a follower. He's got modern-day disco down pat and his productions are glistening flashes that have just enough substance to keep listeners returning. Unlike Stardust's parent organization, Daft Punk, Guetta keeps his feet on Earth, focusing on the sensual and empowering rather than the Punk's love of left-field spaciness. If Daft Punk watch the Cartoon Network all day, Guetta watches BET, and the numerous soulful vocals from gospel singer Chris Willis and dance diva Barbara Tucker are the evidence. "Just a Little More Love" and "Love, Don't Let Me Go" are the proven hits, having deservedly filled many a dancefloor by the album's release. But Guetta still has an album's worth of ideas up his sleeve. "Sexy 17" is a winner with could-be-Prince vocals from the mysterious Jack Uzi, and the aggressive "Distortion" is a nice bit of racket that finds Willis doing a call-and-response with a drum machine. The American edition adds some excitement by tacking on Guetta's banging remix of David Bowie's "Heroes," now titled "Just for One Day." Nice extra, but this edition has already screwed up the flow of the original album by swapping some of the tracks and dropping two in favor of remixes. Of course this isn't conceptual like Sgt. Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon, so it only hurts a little.

David Jeffries, Rovi

G-Sides

Gorillaz
Though it seems a bit soon for a virtual group with only one album to its name to be releasing a B-sides collection, Gorillaz's G-Sides more or less justifies its existence by gathering some of the best extra tracks from the band's singles, most of which are only available as imports. As with Gorillaz, which surrounded catchy songs like "Clint Eastwood" and "19/2000" with quirkier, more experimental tracks, the band uses its B-sides as a chance to stretch out even further musically, either with remixes or with unconventional musical sketches. G-Sides features some of each, ranging from the even bouncier, more upbeat remix of "19/2000" by Soulchild to the rather eerie "Hip Albatross," which mixes samples of moaning zombies from "Dawn of the Dead" with trip-hoppy beats and moody guitars. Rapper Phi Life Cyber reinforces Gorillaz's hip-hop roots by joining them on two tracks, a reworking of "Clint Eastwood" and "The Sounder." The appealingly simple "12D3," with its strummy guitar and playful Damon Albarn vocals, recalls some of Blur's later work, and the funky, quirky "Ghost Train" and the English version of "Latin Simone" also are as enjoyable as anything that appeared on Gorillaz. Aside from the Wiseguys' rather limp reworking of "19/2000," the only problem with G-Sides is its brevity; the U.S. version only includes ten of their B-sides, none of which are from their biggest single, "Clint Eastwood." And while most of the import singles featured CD-ROM tracks of the group's amazing animated videos, none of them appear here. Though the enhanced version of G-Sides and the Japanese D-Sides collection feature more of Gorillaz's B-sides, and they'll probably have a video collection sooner rather than later, these kinds of omissions make G-Sides a slightly frustrating collection. Gorillaz completists will no doubt have all of the import singles already, but G-Sides is the logical next step for anyone intrigued by the group's debut.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Until One

Swedish House Mafia

Clarity

Zedd
After releasing huge hits on Steve Aoki's Dim Mak and Skrillex's OWSLA labels, 23-year-old Zedd unleashes an album's worth of peak-time dance-pop gold. Most of these 10 tracks mesh heartfelt ballads with huge, clubby sounds: Ellie Goulding candy-coats the electrostep monster "Fall Into the Sky," Bright Lights sounds silvery over the soaring progressive house number "Follow You Down," and the title track melds Foxes' breakup lyrics, a men's chorus and huge drum buildups into a cheery dancefloor sing-along. If you prefer more hypnotic vibes, "Stache" and "Shave It Up" are heavy-hitting floor-fillers. With a surprising wealth of ideas and melodies for such a young producer, don't be surprised if Zedd is soon giving Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia a run for their money.

Vivian Host, Google Play

Welcome Reality +

Nero
Welcome Reality is London dubstep duo Nero’s first full-length album. Nero were part of the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll in December 2010. The duo has had a lot of underground success, winning Best Dubstep Act at the 2010 Beatport Awards and even having a song included in The New Yorker magazine’s top songs of 2009. Welcome Reality was preceded by four singles, “Innocence,” “Me and You,” “Guilt,” and “Promises.”, Rovi

True Blue

Madonna
True Blue is the album where Madonna truly became Madonna the Superstar -- the endlessly ambitious, fearlessly provocative entertainer who knew how to outrage, spark debates, get good reviews -- and make good music while she's at it. To complain that True Blue is calculated is to not get Madonna -- that's a large part of what she does, and she is exceptional at it, but she also makes fine music. What's brilliant about True Blue is that she does both here, using the music to hook in critics just as she's baiting a mass audience with such masterstrokes as "Papa Don't Preach," where she defiantly states she's keeping her baby. It's easy to position anti-abortionist as feminism, but what's tricky is to transcend your status as a dance-pop diva by consciously recalling classic girl group pop ("True Blue," "Jimmy Jimmy") to snag the critics, while deepening the dance grooves ("Open Your Heart," "Where's the Party"), touching on Latin rhythms ("La Isla Bonita"), making a plea for world peace ("Love Makes the World Go Round"), and delivering a tremendous ballad that rewrites the rules of adult contemporary crossover ("Live to Tell"). It's even harder to have the entire album play as an organic, cohesive work. Certainly, there's some calculation behind the entire thing, but what matters is the end result, one of the great dance-pop albums, a record that demonstrates Madonna's true skills as a songwriter, record-maker, provocateur, and entertainer through its wide reach, accomplishment, and sheer sense of fun. [Warner Bros.' 2001 reissue included two bonus tracks.]

Bad

Michael Jackson
The downside to a success like Thriller is that it's nearly impossible to follow, but Michael Jackson approached Bad much the same way he approached Thriller -- take the basic formula of the predecessor, expand it slightly, and move it outward. This meant that he moved deeper into hard rock, deeper into schmaltzy adult contemporary, deeper into hard dance -- essentially taking each portion of Thriller to an extreme, while increasing the quotient of immaculate studiocraft. He wound up with a sleeker, slicker Thriller, which isn't a bad thing, but it's not a rousing success, either. For one thing, the material just isn't as good. Look at the singles: only three can stand alongside album tracks from its predecessor ("Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You"), another is simply OK ("Smooth Criminal"), with the other two showcasing Jackson at his worst (the saccharine "Man in the Mirror," the misogynistic "Dirty Diana"). Then, there are the album tracks themselves, something that virtually didn't exist on Thriller but bog down Bad not just because they're bad, but because they reveal that Jackson's state of the art is not hip. And they constitute a near-fatal dead spot on the record -- songs three through six, from "Speed Demon" to "Another Part of Me," a sequence that's utterly faceless, lacking memorable hooks and melodies, even when Stevie Wonder steps in for "Just Good Friends," relying on nothing but studiocraft. Part of the joy of Off the Wall and Thriller was that craft was enhanced with tremendous songs, performances, and fresh, vivacious beats. For this dreadful stretch, everything is mechanical, and while the album rebounds with songs that prove mechanical can be tolerable if delivered with hooks and panache, it still makes Bad feel like an artifact of its time instead a piece of music that transcends it. And if that wasn't evident proof that Jackson was losing touch, consider this -- the best song on the album is "Leave Me Alone" (why are all of his best songs paranoid anthems?), a tune tacked on to the end of the CD and never released as a single, apart from a weirdly claustrophobic video that, not coincidentally, was the best video from the album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Purple Rain

Prince and the Revolution

Born In The U.S.A.

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen had become increasingly downcast as a songwriter during his recording career, and his pessimism bottomed out with Nebraska. But Born in the U.S.A., his popular triumph, which threw off seven Top Ten hits and became one of the best-selling albums of all time, trafficked in much the same struggle, albeit set to galloping rhythms and set off by chiming guitars. That the witless wonders of the Reagan regime attempted to co-opt the title track as an election-year campaign song wasn't so surprising: the verses described the disenfranchisement of a lower-class Vietnam vet, and the chorus was intended to be angry, but it came off as anthemic. Then, too, Springsteen had softened his message with nostalgia and sentimentality, and those are always crowd-pleasers. "Glory Days" may have employed Springsteen's trademark disaffection, yet it came across as a couch potato's drunken lament. But more than anything else, Born in the U.S.A. marked the first time that Springsteen's characters really seemed to relish the fight and to have something to fight for. They were not defeated ("No Surrender"), and they had friendship ("Bobby Jean") and family ("My Hometown") to defend. The restless hero of "Dancing in the Dark" even pledged himself in the face of futility, and for Springsteen, that was a step. The "romantic young boys" of his first two albums, chastened by "the working life" encountered on his third, fourth, and fifth albums and having faced the despair of his sixth, were still alive on this, his seventh, with their sense of humor and their determination intact. Born in the U.S.A. was their apotheosis, the place where they renewed their commitment and where Springsteen remembered that he was a rock & roll star, which is how a vastly increased public was happy to treat him.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Whitney

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston became an international star with this album. It sold more than ten million copies around the world, yielded a string of number one hit singles across the board like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," and "Love Will Save the Day," and established Houston as the era's top female star. She later went on to more than solidify that status, with other hit albums and a budding film career. While this is a far cry from soul, it's the ultimate in polished, super-produced urban contemporary material.

Ron Wynn, Rovi

Faith

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

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

Graffiti

Chris Brown
Most of Graffiti is a natural progression for Chris Brown. Like many young cred-seeking male singers who have just exited their teenage years, Brown emphasizes womanizing and hedonism and balances it out with a couple clean and empty ballads, as well as a couple relatively lighthearted Europop numbers. A handful of songs deal with his relationship with Rihanna, as well as the fallout from his assault of her. [The Deluxe Edition of the album adds a bonus disc containing six extra songs.]

Dangerously In Love

Beyoncé
Beyoncé Knowles was always presented as the star of Destiny's Child -- which probably shouldn't be a big surprise since her father managed the group. So it was a natural step for her to step into the diva spotlight with a solo album in 2003, particularly since it followed on the heels of her co-starring role in Mike Myers' 2002 comedy hit, Austin Powers in Goldmember. Still, a singer takes a risk when going solo, as there's no guarantee that her/his star will still shine as bright when there's nobody to reflect upon. Plus, Survivor often sounded labored, as Knowles struggled to sound real. The Knowles clan -- Beyoncé and her father Mathew, that is (regrettably, Harry Knowles of "Ain't It Cool" is no relation) -- were apparently aware of these two pitfalls since they pull off a nifty trick of making her debut album, Dangerously in Love, appeal to a broad audience while making it sound relatively easy. Sometimes that ease can translate into carelessness (at least with regard to the final stretch of the album), with a prolonged sequence of ballads that get stuck in their own treacle, capped off by the unbearably mawkish closer, "Gift from Virgo," where she wishes her unborn child and her husband to be like her daddy. (Mind you, she's not pregnant or married, she's just planning ahead, although she gets tripped up in her wishes since there's "no one else like my daddy.") Although these are a little formless -- and perhaps would have been more digestible if spread throughout the record -- they are impeccably produced and showcase Knowles' new relaxed and smooth delivery, which is a most welcome development after the overworked Survivor. Knowles doesn't save this voice just for the ballads -- she sounds assured and sexy on the dance numbers, particularly when she has a male counterpart, as on the deliriously catchy "Crazy in Love" with her man Jay-Z or on "Baby Boy" with 2003's dancehall superstar, Sean Paul. These are the moments when Dangerously in Love not only works, but sounds like Knowles has fulfilled her potential and risen to the top of the pack of contemporary R&B divas. It's just too bad that momentum is not sustained throughout the rest of the record. About halfway through, around the astrological ode "Signs" with Missy Elliott, it starts crawling through its ballads and, while listenable, it's not as exciting as the first part of the record. Still, the first half is good enough to make Dangerously in Love one of the best mainstream urban R&B records released in 2003, and makes a strong case that Knowles might be better off fulfilling this destiny instead of reuniting with Destiny.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Lights

Ellie Goulding
It shouldn't surprise any Ellie Goulding fan to know that as a songwriter, the 23-year-old British songstress has written for the likes of Gabriella Cilmi and Diana Vickers. That's because Goulding's talent doesn't stretch far from other teen Brit-pop artists of 2010, who are more likely to pull back and dig deep on a record than indulge in the froth of Girls Aloud or Sugababes. However, Goulding's first full-length album, Lights, seems to fall somewhere in between the two. It lacks the dramatic crash and bang of Florence + the Machine's Lungs, but is certainly a more restrained, compelling listen than the debut records by Pixie Lott and Little Boots. Goulding's quite the songwriter (she co-wrote every track), and songs like "This Love" and "Under the Sheets" suggest that Goulding's album doesn't fall back on singles like Paloma Faith's album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? This album is tender, sharp, and most importantly, musically relevant. Goulding is able to take the best parts of all of her contemporaries' styles and create pleasantly surprising records. A casual listener may not adore Goulding's album in its entirety, but many will be able to find something to adore from this magical young talent. [The U.S. release of the album switches up the track list (adding the title track and cutting "Wish I'd Stayed"), changes the cover, and adds a bonus track (her version of Elton John's "Your Song").]

Matthew Chisling, Rovi

Gold

Britt Nicole
The third album from contemporary Christian standout Britt Nicole is a laser beam of positivity. Its intense, narrowly focused beam of empowerment picks up right where 2009's The Lost Get Found left off. Rising through the ranks has given Nicole ample opportunity to shower teen and preteen young women with her unmistakable message of identity. For the most part, Gold is a return to the dance club fare that has become her calling card -- a slickly produced tour that pairs her powerful voice with synth beats resembling many of the decade's hot pop singers from Jessie J to Ke$ha to Katy Perry. "All This Time" is one of the more intimate tracks, describing the singer's story of personal belief (and incidentally not sounding too unlike the well-known poem "Footprints") with the chorus "You've been walking with me all this time." Nicole never sacrifices substance for style, which is refreshing considering how well the album comes off as current and relevant.

Here's To The Good Times

Florida Georgia Line
True to its name, country duo Florida Georgia Line comprises a Floridian (Brian Kelley) and a Georgia boy (Tyler Hubbard), who first took Nashville (and the rest of the nation) by storm with their 2012 EP, It'z Just What We Do. The pair's full-length debut, Here's to the Good Times, is cut from the same stylistic cloth as the EP, furthering the seamless incorporation of R&B production techniques into a modern country format. You could consider Here's to the Good Times the big brother to Taylor Swift's contemporaneous, dance pop-tinged Red, with a fair share of power balladry ("Stay," "Hell Raisin' Heat of the Summer") and crunching, country-rock guitar riffs ("It'z Just What We Do," "Tip It Back") added in to ensure things never get monochromatic.

Jim Allen, Google Play

Up All Night

Kip Moore
No one in country music ever went wrong singing about trucks, and that's exactly how Georgia boy Kip Moore made his way to the upper rungs of the charts, scoring high with his single "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" before he even had an album out. On his full-length debut, we can hear Moore's musical personality more fully fleshed out, and, among other things, Up All Night is an excellent illustration of the degree to which '70s/'80s heartland rock has informed modern-day country. Moore—who co-wrote every song on the album—makes it clear he's a stone-cold country boy with the lyrics in songs like "Beer Money," "Reckless (Still Growin' Up)," and the aforementioned truck track. But musically, once you take away the occasional pedal steel, there's little here that would sound out of place on a classic Bob Seger album, which is no liability whichever side of the rock/country fence you occupy.

Jim Allen, Google Play

Dirty Bass

Far East Movement
The follow-up to Free Wired, their major label debut, Far East Movement's Dirty Bass is an electropop-meets-hip-hop dance party. Known for "Like a G6," their 2010 number 1 hit about poppin' bottles and sippin' sizzurp, the L.A. foursome keep it in the club on this album with collaborations galore from both newcomers and pop stars. The title track features rapper Tyga, while Pitbull joins in for "Candy" and "Fly With U" finds a vocally-processed Cassie on the chorus. Hit single "Live My Life," featuring Justin Bieber, is a catchy ode to partying hard.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Madhouse: The Very Best Of Anthrax

Anthrax
Why the release of one Anthrax hits collection (1999's Return of the Killer A's) so close to another (2001's Madhouse: The Very Best of Anthrax), you ask? Well, the answer's simple -- the latest one is not the doing of the band, but their former label, Island. The 12-track set covers just the band's highlights from 1985's Spreading the Disease up to 1991's Attack of the Killer B's. Granted, there are quite a few thrash metal classics here ("A.I.R.," "I Am the Law," "Indians," "Antisocial," "Got the Time"), as well as some of the first-ever rap-metal experiments ("I'm the Man," "Bring the Noise"), the latter almost single-handedly laying the groundwork for such future hitmaking '90s acts as Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. The earlier set, Return of the Killer A's, proves to be the better of the two since it covers more ground, but if you're looking for a budget-priced collection that covers Anthrax's peak years, Madhouse: The Very Best of Anthrax manages to do the trick.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Destroyer

Kiss
The pressure was on Kiss for their fifth release, and the band knew it. Their breakthrough, Alive!, was going to be hard to top, so instead of trying to re-create a concert setting in the studio, they went the opposite route. Destroyer is one of Kiss' most experimental studio albums, but also one of their strongest and most interesting. Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin was on hand, and he strongly encouraged the band to experiment -- there's extensive use of sound effects (the album's untitled closing track), the appearance of a boy's choir ("Great Expectations"), and an orchestra-laden, heartfelt ballad ("Beth"). But there's plenty of Kiss' heavy thunder rock to go around, such as the demonic "God of Thunder" and the singalong anthems "Flaming Youth," "Shout It Out Loud," "King of the Night Time World," and "Detroit Rock City" (the latter a tale of a doomed concertgoer, complete with violent car-crash sound effects). But it was the aforementioned Peter Criss ballad, "Beth," that made Destroyer such a success; the song was a surprise Top Ten hit (it was originally released as a B-side to "Detroit Rock City"). Also included is a song that Nirvana would later cover ("Do You Love Me?"), as well as an ode to the pleasures of S&M, "Sweet Pain." Destroyer also marked the first time that a comic-book illustration of the band appeared on the cover, confirming that Kiss were transforming from hard rockers to superheroes. [In 2012, Universal issued a Resurrected edition featuring a new mix by original producer Bob Ezrin. The in-album version of "Beth" is extended, featuring a verse not heard on the original release, while a version of "Sweet Pain" with an alternate guitar solo is added as a bonus track.]

Countdown To Extinction

Megadeth
The remixed and remastered Megadeth albums released in 2004 aren't your typical cash-ins. They're stark improvements over the originals: group leader Dave Mustaine did the remixing and remastering himself, making especially significant revisions to the earlier albums, and he includes insightful liner notes for each reissue, including track-by-track commentary for the bonus tracks, as well as lyrics and period photos. The reissue of Countdown to Extinction, like those of the albums that postdate it, isn't all that different from its original incarnation. Megadeth was a big-budget band by this point and afforded itself top-shelf production. So, unlike the band's earlier albums from the '80s, there's not too much to improve upon with Countdown to Extinction. Even so, Mustaine does slightly improve upon the album's already glossy sheen, especially bringing his vocals to the fore (think "Sweating Bullets") and giving the bottom end a little more oomph. Of course, the sheen of Countdown to Extinction has always been a thorny issue with some longtime fans, and this further polishing isn't likely to remedy those too-slick criticisms that have increasingly dogged this album with the passing of time. To go back to 1992 for a moment, you should remember that the "almost" chart-topping Countdown to Extinction was a major turning point for Megadeth as well as for the thrash metal movement they'd helped lead throughout the late '80s. For a thrash metal band to debut at number two on the Billboard album chart (a slim notch below Billy Ray "Achy Breaky Heart" Cyrus' Some Gave All) would have been unimaginable a few years earlier, when Megadeth and their thrash ilk were on the cutting edge of the metal underground -- firmly antithetical to pop-metal chart-toppers like Poison and Mötley Crüe. So it's curious to ponder what the hell happened in a few years' time. Such a chart-topping position (Mustaine writes in the liner notes that he was "pissed" upon learning of his number two debut -- because he'd "wanted number one") was as much a result of Megadeth's growing acceptance among the metal community at large as it was the band's more mannered songwriting (much in the spirit of Metallica's mannered songwriting on their 1991 self-titled, black album -- make of that what you will). For instance, the speed is toned down here -- significantly! -- the singing is quite melodic, and the songwriting is very lyrical, all of this well illustrated on the pair of heavily rotated MTV favorites: "Symphony of Destruction" and "Sweating Bullets." Given how little the remix of this album differs from its original mix, the bonus tracks should be the primary draw: an okay Diamond Head tribute of sorts titled "Crown of Worms" and a trio of demos, most notably an interesting version of "Symphony of Destruction" that resembles the live version recorded for the Rude Awakening, Rovi

Orchid

Opeth
Opeth's debut, Orchid, was quite an audacious release, a far-beyond-epic prog/death monstrosity exuding equal parts beauty and brutality -- an album so brilliant, so navel-gazingly pretentious that, in retrospect, Opeth's future greatness was a foregone conclusion. Fact is, these Swedes -- with the opening cut, "In Mist She Was Standing," exceeding the 14-minute mark -- laid their cards on the table at the beginning of the hand and still took the pot, so ambitious and convincing is the band's artistic vision. And while the record finds the group searching for the razor-sharp focus and prominent emotional hook put forth on the later, classic releases My Arms, Your Hearse, Still Life, and Blackwater Park, Orchid is still an exhilarating listen, with the band meshing double-time death tempos with bleak, frostbitten riffs and moodily expansive, jazz-influenced, melodic instrumental passages sporting an abundance of delicate acoustic guitars and pianos. Mastermind Mikael Akerfeldt's guttural growls puncture the nearly interminable arrangements with the kind of brutality that stops die-hard death and black metal fans from giving up on the lengthy arrangements completely, although with five exorbitant cuts clocking in at ten-plus minutes (three of them over 13 minutes), some fat-trimming would have kept things even remotely manageable. Still, one has to admire Opeth's unwavering adherence to the album's astoundingly depressive tone, Orchid being a near-brilliant ode to misery that would kick the door down for Akerfeldt and his cohorts to claim sole ownership of a well-conceived and, at the time, startlingly unique sound. [Back on Black issued a Limited Edition in 2008.]

John Serba, Rovi

As The Palaces Burn

Lamb of God
Lamb of God 's New American Gospel debut featured a caustic yet lucid version of post-Pantera death metal, surprisingly effective songwriting, massive amounts of confidence for a brand new band, and, to be honest, a really annoying drum sound (rather like tightly skinned tin cans). Even though the latter point is certainly subject to opinion, at least the other two positive attributes can be partly explained by the group having already cut an earlier album while still going by the rather unsavory name of Burn the Priest. Which about catches everyone up to discuss the band's second effort as Lamb of God, 2003's equally impressive As the Palaces Burn. First off, gone is that out-of-whack percussive curiosity (thanks, boys!), but the band's knack for conjuring tasty riffs out of death metal's tired and weathered carcass remains intact, and it's pleasantly refreshing to discover something memorable and compelling about virtually every song. Among these, the excellent tandem of "Ruin" and the title track offer a powerful opening salvo, and additional highlights such as "11th Hour," "Boot Scraper," and the absolutely monstrous "Vigil" continually insert dark, distinctive melody lines within the heaviest of riffs. Further progress can be heard in vocalist Randy Blythe's performance, as he continues to shed his latent Anselmo-isms to strike a far more individual presence behind the mike. And still, for all of these positives, one can't help but feel in the end that there's still a wealth of untapped talent just beneath the surface here. If Lamb of God can maintain their momentum and actually figure it out, they may well find themselves at the top of America's heavy metal stack one day.

Eduardo Rivadavia

Kick

INXS
"What You Need" had taken INXS from college radio into the American Top Five, but there was little indication that the group would follow it with a multi-platinum blockbuster like Kick. Where the follow-ups to "What You Need" made barely a ripple on the pop charts, Kick spun off four Top Ten singles, including the band's only American number one, "Need You Tonight." Kick crystallized all of the band's influences -- Stones-y rock & roll, pop, funk, contemporary dance-pop -- into a cool, stylish dance/rock hybrid. It was perfectly suited to lead singer Michael Hutchence's feline sexuality, which certainly didn't hurt the band's already inventive videos. But it wasn't just image that provided their breakthrough. For the first (and really only) time, INXS made a consistently solid album that had no weak moments from top to bottom. More than that, really, Kick is an impeccably crafted pop "tour de force", the band succeeding at everything they try. Every track has at least a subtly different feel from what came before it; INXS freely incorporates tense guitar riffs, rock & roll anthems, swing-tinged pop/rock, string-laden balladry, danceable pop-funk, horn-driven '60s soul, '80s R&B, and even a bit of the new wave-ish sound they'd started out with. More to the point, every song is catchy and memorable, branded with indelible hooks. Even without the band's sense of style, the flawless songcraft is intoxicating, and it's what makes Kick one of the best mainstream pop albums of the '80s.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Speaking In Tongues

Talking Heads
Talking Heads found a way to open up the dense textures of the music they had developed with Brian Eno on their two previous studio albums for Speaking in Tongues, and were rewarded with their most popular album yet. Ten backup singers and musicians accompanied the original quartet, but somehow the sound was more spacious, and the music admitted aspects of gospel, notably in the call-and-response of "Slippery People," and John Lee Hooker-style blues, on "Swamp." As usual, David Byrne determinedly sang and chanted impressionistic, nonlinear lyrics, sometimes by mix-and-matching clichés ("No visible means of support and you have not seen nothin' yet," he declared on "Burning Down the House," the Heads' first Top Ten hit), and the songs' very lack of clear meaning was itself a lyrical subject. "Still don't make no sense," Byrne admitted in "Making Flippy Floppy," but by the next song, "Girlfriend Is Better," that had become an order -- "Stop making sense," he chanted over and over. Some of his charming goofiness had returned since the overly serious Remain in Light and Fear of Music, however, and the accompanying music, filled with odd percussive and synthesizer sounds, could be unusually light and bouncy. The album closer, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," even sounded hopeful. Well, sort of. Despite their formal power, Talking Heads' preceding two albums seemed to have painted them into a corner, which may be why it took them three years to craft a follow-up, but on Speaking in Tongues, they found an open window and flew out of it.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Greatest Hits

RUN-DMC
Supplanting the 1991 collection Together Forever, BMG Heritage's 2002 Greatest Hits also runs 18 tracks and shares ten of the same songs -- namely, all the big hits and usual suspects. Of the eight tracks left behind, there are some big ones -- no "Peter Piper" or "My Adidas" -- and the sequencing, while flowing much better than its predecessor, is still non-chronological, which robs the narrative of some power even if the music retains all of it. So, that means we're still waiting for the perfect Run-D.M.C. collection, but until that arrives, this is still an excellent listen and works well as both a summary and introduction to one of the greatest bands of the '80s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Escape

Journey
Escape was a groundbreaking album for San Francisco's Journey, charting three singles inside Billboard's Top Ten, with "Don't Stop Believing" reaching number nine, "Who's Crying Now" number four, and "Open Arms" peaking at number two and holding there for six weeks. Escape flung Journey steadfastly into the AOR arena, combining Neal Schon's grand yet palatable guitar playing with Jonathan Cain's blatant keyboards. All this was topped off by the passionate, wide-ranged vocals of Steve Perry, who is the true lifeblood of this album, and this band. The songs on Escape are more rock-flavored, with more hooks and a harder cadence compared to their former sound. "Who's Crying Now" spotlights the sweeping fervor of Perry's voice, whose theme about the ups and downs of a relationship was plentiful in Journey's repertoire. With "Don't Stop Believing," the whisper of Perry's ardor is crept up to with Schon's searing electric guitar work, making for a perfect rock song. One of rock's most beautiful ballads, "Open Arms," gleams with an honesty and feel only Steve Perry could muster. Outside of the singles, there is a certain electricity that circulates through the rest of the album. The songs are timeless, and as a whole, they have a way of rekindling the innocence of youthful romance and the rebelliousness of growing up, built from heartfelt songwriting and sturdy musicianship. [Escape was reissued in 2006, housed in a fancy digipack with an expanded booklet and the addition of four bonus tracks: "La Raza del Sol" (the B-side of "Still They Ride") and three live songs from a 1981 show.]

Mike DeGagne, Rovi

No Jacket Required

Phil Collins
The winner of the 1985 Grammy for Pop Album of the Year, No Jacket Required found Phil Collins fully embracing horn-driven pop music, drum machines, and sentimental ballads over his previous darker and more dramatic solo material. The record established him as a major commercial force, and as one of the most recognizable voices of the 1980s. Although the major hits here, "Sussudio," "One More Night," "Who Said I Would," and "Don't Lose My Number" quickly came to sound dated, the album contains several standout tracks. "Long Long Way to Go," which features a cameo by Sting, is one of Collins' most effective ballads, while the pulsating "Take Me Home" utilizes the drama of "In the Air Tonight" on a more wistful track. "Only You Know and I Know" and "Inside Out," meanwhile, show an effective aggressive side to the singer. It's not a completely satisfying recording, but it is the best example of one of the most dominating and influential styles of the 1980s.

Geoff Orens, Rovi

Raising Hell

Run-DMC
By their third album, Run-D.M.C. were primed for a breakthrough into the mainstream, but nobody was prepared for a blockbuster on the level of Raising Hell. Run-D.M.C. and King of Rock had established the crew's fusion of hip-hop and hard rock, but that sound didn't blossom until Raising Hell, partially due to the presence of Rick Rubin as producer. Rubin loved metal and rap in equal measures and he knew how to play to the strengths of both, while slipping in commercial concessions that seemed sly even when they borrowed from songs as familiar as "My Sharona" (heard on "It's Tricky"). Along with longtime Run-D.M.C. producer Russell Simmons, Rubin blew down the doors of what hip-hop could do with Raising Hell because it reached beyond rap-rock and found all sorts of sounds outside of it. Sonically, there is simply more going on in this album than any previous rap record -- more hooks, more drum loops (courtesy of ace drum programmer Sam Sever), more scratching, more riffs, more of everything. Where other rap records, including Run-D.M.C.'s, were all about the rhythm, this is layered with sounds and ideas, giving the music a tangible "flow". But the brilliance of this record is that even with this increased musical depth, it still rocks as hard as hell, and in a manner that brought in a new audience. Of course, the cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," complete with that band's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, helped matters considerably, since it gave an audience unfamiliar with rap an entry point, but if it were just a novelty record, a one-shot fusion of rap and rock, Raising Hell would never have sold three million copies. No, the music was fully realized and thoroughly invigorating, rocking harder and better than any of its rock or rap peers in 1986, and years later, that sense of excitement is still palpable on this towering success story for rap in general and Run-D.M.C. in specific.

Fallen

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

Hot Cakes

The Darkness

Greatest Hits - Chapter One

Kelly Clarkson
A decade after winning the first season of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson's Greatest Hits: Chapter One spans the commanding vocalist's many hits along with three new songs, "Catch My Breath," "People Like Us" and "Don't Rush," a country duet with Vince Gill. With five albums under her belt, Clarkson's career highlights are heavy on empowerment anthems and songs about self discovery, including "Since U Been Gone," "Miss Independent," "Mr. Know It All," "Because of You" and her most successful single to date, "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

The Singles Collection

Britney Spears
Like 2004's Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, 2009's The Singles runs 17 tracks but the selected songs result in a very different listening experience. To begin with, the five years separating the two compilations were tumultuous ones for Britney Spears, but they resulted in a clutch of hits that kept her on the charts despite all the drama, hits that firmly entrenched Britney as a dance club diva. This stretch of six singles -- "Gimme More," "Piece of Me," "Womanizer," "Circus," "If You Seek Amy," "Radar" -- along with the excellent new Max Martin-written and produced single "3" (much better than any of the three new cuts on My Prerogative), help push The Singles away from teen pop and toward pure dance-pop bliss, a shift in tone underscored by the virtual absence of ballads (the only one included is "Everytime," which in this context plays a bit as a chill-out number). In some regards, giving her early sticky bubblegum and fluffy ballads a bit of a short shrift does downplay Britney's era of dominance, but it does result in a stronger overall listen, since there are no slow patches here, just a parade of relentless hooks and rhythms that wound up defining the sound of a decade.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade Of Hits

Christina Aguilera
When Christina Aguilera began her decade of hits back in 1999 she was instantly overshadowed by her fellow New Mickey Mouse Club alumni Britney Spears, who was first out of the gate with Baby One More Time and wound up outselling Christina and every other teen pop act this side of *NSync in the first years of the new millennium. As the 2000s rolled on, Aguilera slowly, surely began to eclipse Spears. Brit-Brit's downward spiral and arrested artistic development seemed all the stronger when compared to Xtina's restless risks and increasingly assured musical vision, a progression that's evident on Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits. Arranged chronologically from 1999's "Genie in a Bottle" to 2007's "Candyman," Keeps Gettin' Better has a narrative momentum: the squeaky-clean pop singer shatters her image via hyper-sexualized dance tracks which left her free to get crazier, campier, and better, turning into a pop diva that truly deserves that title. Keeps Gettin' Better hints at the future with two excellent new songs (the title track and "Dynamite") along with remakes of "Genie in a Bottle" and "Beautiful,"" all done in a chilly electro style that suggests a Blackout if Britney were in control and knew what she was doing, but what is remarkable about the collection is that Christina's past holds up, with the candy-pop of "Genie," "What a Girl Wants," and "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" still sounding sweet, "Beautiful" sounding richly melancholy, and "Ain't No Other Man" and "Candyman" wickedly funny, knowing blasts of retro-swing. She may have started out in Britney's shadow, but Keeps Gettin' Better proves that no other teen pop singer of her era has a better track record than Christina and if the new songs are any indication, the title of this hits comp is no lie either.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Starring In: Rebelution

Pitbull
On the mistitled Rebelution, rapper Pitbull takes a cue from his homeboy Flo Rida and dives headfirst into the lucrative world of ultra-slick Miami club-rap. The only stories of boat people found here are the kind about people who own yachts, and while the Cuban-American's songs of freedom are sorely missed, nothing in the man's back catalog could fill a dancefloor as quickly as the tech-house stunner "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)." Same could said of the futuristic booty music "Krazy" with Lil Jon or "Hotel Room Service," which triple mashes an old-school hit ("Rapper's Delight"), a 2 Live Crew classic ("One and One"), plus a house music giant (the Nightcrawlers' "Push the Feeling On"). Problem is, when it doesn't work, it is borderline obnoxious, worst being when "Girl" beats a trashy, groan-worthy joke into the ground (heard repeatedly is "Mama, you bi?" "No, I'm 'tri.' I'll try anything"). The only relief comes in the form of the overgrown interlude "Dope Ball" ("The law is like referees/They can get bought") plus the two calmer closing tracks that slowly ease the listener down. Even if it's not the most persuasive mood album, once the party has kicked into high gear Rebelution will certainly keep it going.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Epiphany

T-Pain
From its title to its more poignant numbers, T-Pain's Epiphany wears the tag line "more mature album" proudly, which it is, sort of, half of the time. The singer, rapper, writer, producer, voicebox abuser, and favorite target of many hip-hop fans is one of the few who could put an effervescent ode to a jiggly stomach ("Some people like booty/And ain't nothing wrong with that/Ain't nothing more groovy/Than when that stomach moving") on an album that dare pimp the word "mature." "Stomach" is not an empowering anthem for thick women, and when the world "nut" appears as a verb, it's easy to remember R. Kelly and his juggling of the sublime and ridiculous. Problem is, T-Pain has a long way to go before he gets anywhere close to Kels' "I Believe I Can Fly." Instead he's got a fat sack of "Thoia Thoing"s with hooks, slick sounds, and shameless lyrics along with the occasionally crafty production twist. Take the futuristic reggae number "Shottas" or the busy "Church," which dares the listener to hang onto its hectic beat. As far as "mature," there's a gripping interlude four tracks in, "I Got It" (the "it" being HIV), and then the ambitious "Suicide," which has more depth and feeling than expected. These vibrant touches and bold moments make the album worth pulling for, but T-Pain's ongoing issue with beating good ideas to death has now extended to just fair ideas. Three alcohol-based numbers, two of which are highlights ("Bartender" featuring Akon and "Buy U a Drank" with Yung Joc) and one that's just filler ("Tipsy"), could have been spread across three albums instead of dropped on one. Plus, Epiphany is overstuffed, with nothing that tops last album's "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)," and the more mature side never quite gels with the irresponsible party side. All that said, T-Pain is still more misguided than mediocre, which keeps Epiphany from being a failure.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Love Angel Music Baby

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

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Sweet Escape

Gwen Stefani
Awkward and alluring in equal measures, Gwen Stefani's 2004 solo debut, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., did its job: it made Gwen a bigger star on her own than she was as the lead singer of No Doubt. With that established and her long-desired wish for a baby finally fulfilled, there was no rush for Gwen to get back to her regular gig, so she made another solo album, The Sweet Escape, which expanded on what really sold her debut: her tenuous connections to Californian club culture. There was always a sense of artifice behind the turn-of-the-century makeover that brought Gwen from a ska-punk sweetheart to a dance club queen, but that doesn't mean it didn't work at least on occasion, most spectacularly so on the gloriously dumb marching-band rap of "Hollaback Girl," the Neptunes production that turned L.A.M.B. into a blockbuster. There, as on her duet with Eve on "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Gwen made the transition into a modern-day material girl with ease, but when she tried to shoehorn this ghetto-fabulous persona into her original new wave girl character, it felt forced, nowhere more so than on the Linda Perry written and produced "What You Waiting For." Gwen doesn't make that mistake again on The Sweet Escape -- by and large, she keeps these two sides of her personality separate, favoring the streets and nightclubs to the comfort of her new wave home. Just because she wants to run in the streets doesn't mean she belongs there; she continues to sound far more comfortable mining new wave pop, as only a child of the '80s could. As always, it's those celebrations of cool synths and stylish pop hooks that work the best for Stefani, whether she's approximating the chilliness of early-MTV new romantics on "Wonderful Life," mashing Prince and Madonna on "Fluorescent," or lying back on the coolly sensual "4 in the Morning."

Only once on the album is she able to bring this style and popcraft to a heavy dance track, and that's on the irresistible Akon-produced title track, driven by a giddy "wee-oh!" hook and supported by a nearly anthemic summertime chorus. Tellingly, the Neptunes, the architects of her best dance cuts on L.A.M.B., did not produce this track, but they do have a huge presence on The Sweet Escape, helming five of the 12 songs, all but one being tracks that weigh down the album considerably. The exception is "U Started It," a light and nifty evocation of mid-period Prince, with its lilting melody, silken harmonies, and pizzicato strings. It sounds effortless and effervescent, two words that do not apply to their other four productions, all skeletal, rhythm-heavy tracks that fail to click. Sometimes, they're merely leaden, as on the stumbling autobiographical rap "Orange County Girl"; sometimes, they're cloying and crass, as on the rather embarrassing "Yummy"; sometimes they have an interesting idea executed poorly, as on "Breakin' Up," a breakup song built on a dying cell phone metaphor that's interesting in theory but its stuttering, static rhythms and repetitive chorus are irritating in practice. Also interesting in theory is the truly bizarre lead single, "Wind It Up," where the Neptunes force fanfares and samples from The Sound of Music's "The Lonely Goatherd" into one of their typical minimalist tracks, over which Gwen spouts off clumsy material-minded lyrics touting her fashion line and her shape. Nothing in this track really works, but it's hard not to listen to it in wonder, since its unwieldy rhythms and rhymes capture everything that's currently wrong about Stefani.

From the stilted production to the fashion fetish, all the way down to her decision to rap on "far" too much of the album, all the dance-pop here seems like a pose, creating the impression that she's a glamour girl slumming on a weekend night -- something that her self-proclaimed Michelle Pfieffer in Scarface "coke whore" makeover showcased on the album's cover doesn't do much to dissuade. If the dance production on The Sweet Escape were better, these hipster affectations would be easier to forgive, but they're not: they're canned and bland, which only accentuates Stefani's stiffness. These misfires are so grand they overshadow the many good moments on The Sweet Escape, which are invariably those songs that stay true to her long-standing love of new wave pop (not coincidentally, these include every production from her No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal). These are the moments that give The Sweet Escape its sweetness, and while they may require a little effort to dig out, they're worth the effort, since it proves that beneath the layers of bling, Gwen remains the SoCal sweetheart that has always been as spunky and likeable as she has been sexy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Diamond Life

Sade
Former model Sade made an immediate and huge impact with her 1984 debut album, Diamond Life. Her sound and approach were deliberately icy, her delivery and voice aloof, deadpan, and cold, and yet she became an instant sensation through such songs as "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King," where the slick production and quasi-jazz backing seemed to register with audiences thinking they were hearing a jazz vocalist.

Ron Wynn, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Billy Ocean
Billy Ocean's Greatest Hits packs nearly all of the singer's charted singles that were on the Jive record label. Ocean scored an impressive run of feel-good Top 40 hits in the mid- to late '80s, including three number one singles, those being the classic post-disco jam "Caribbean Queen," the ballad "There'll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)," and the high-energy pop ditty "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car." Ocean's Top Ten hits, which all appear here, include the dance-pop of "Loverboy" and "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going" (from Jewel of the Nile), the soft ballad "Suddenly," and the soul nugget "Love Zone." The music was irresistibly pop, with some of these songs ranking as the catchiest, most radio-friendly music the '80s had to offer. The only hits not found on this set are the ballad "Love Is Forever" and Ocean's first major U.S. hit, 1976's "Love Really Hurts Without You." The funky, delightful "License to Chill," a Top 40 hit in its own right, is one of two later tracks on this set. The other is the dreadful "I Sleep Much Better (In Someone Else's Bed)." As a final note, "Loverboy," "When the Going Gets Tough," and "Caribbean Queen" are included in their edited, single versions.

Jose F. Promis, Rovi

4 [Expanded]

Foreigner
Over the course of their first three late-'70s albums, Foreigner had firmly established themselves (along with Journey and Styx) as one of the top AOR bands of the era. But the band was still looking for that grand slam of a record that would push them to the very top of the heap. Released in 1981, 4 would be that album. In producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange -- fresh off his massive success with AC/DC's Back in Black -- guitarist and all-around mastermind Mick Jones found both the catalyst to achieve this and his perfect musical soulmate. Lange's legendary obsessive attention to detail and Jones' highly disciplined guitar heroics (which he never allowed to get in the way of a great song) resulted in a collaboration of unprecedented, sparkling efficiency where not a single note is wasted. "Nightlife" is only the first in a series ("Woman in Black," "Don't Let Go," the '50s-tinged "Luanne") of energetic, nearly flawless melodic rockers, and with "Juke Box Hero," the band somehow managed to create both a mainstream hit single and a highly unique-sounding track, alternating heavy metal guitar riffing, chorused vocals, and one of the ultimate "wanna be a rock star" lyrics. As for the mandatory power ballad, the band also reached unparalleled heights with "Waiting for a Girl Like You." One of the decade's most successful cross-genre tearjerkers, it has since become a staple of soft rock radio and completely eclipsed the album's other very lovely ballad, "Girl on the Moon," in the process. And last but not least, the surprisingly funky "Urgent" proved to be one of the band's most memorable and uncharacteristic smash hits, thanks to Junior Walker's signature saxophone solo. Through it all, vocalist Lou Gramm does his part, delivering a dazzling performance that confirmed his status as one of the finest voices of his generation. Three years later, Foreigner would achieve even greater success on a pop level with the uneven Agent Provocateur, but by then Jones and Gramm were locked in an escalating war of egos that would soon lead to the band's demise. All things considered, 4 remains Foreigner's career peak. [Atlantic Records' expanded version, released in 2002, adds acoustic versions of the hits "Juke Box Hero" and "Waiting for a Girl Like You."]

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Make It Big

Wham!
The title was a promise to themselves, Wham!'s assurance that they would make it big after struggling out of the gates the first time out. They succeeded on a grander scale than they ever could have imagined, conquering the world and elsewhere with this effervescent set of giddy new wave pop-soul, thereby making George Michael a superstar and consigning Andrew Ridgeley to the confines of Trivial Pursuit. It was so big and the singles were so strong that it's easy to overlook its patchwork qualities. It's no longer than eight tracks, short even for the pre-CD era, and while the four singles are strong, the rest is filler, including an Isley Brothers cover. Thankfully, it's the kind of filler that's so tied to its time that it's fascinating in its stilted post-disco dance-pop rhythms and Thatcher/Reagan materialism -- an era that encouraged songs called "Credit Card Baby." If this dichotomy between the A-sides and B-sides is far too great to make this essential, the way Faith later would be, those A-sides range from good to terrific. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is absolute silliness whose very stupidity is its strength, and if "Everything She Wants" is merely agreeable bubblegum, "Freedom" is astounding, a sparkling Motown rip-off rippling with spirit and a timeless melody later ripped off by Noel Gallagher. Then, there's the concluding "Careless Whisper," a soulful slow one where Michael regrets a one-night stand over a richly seductive background and a yearning saxophone. It was an instant classic, and it was the first indication of George Michael's strengths as a pop craftsman -- which means it points the way to Faith, not the halfhearted Edge of Heaven.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Men And Women

Simply Red
After a monster debut, Simply Red's follow-up album...featured an uneven batch of songs and lacked the kind of standout single Hucknall had enjoyed on the previous album with "Holding Back the Years." It wasn't a half-hearted effort by any means; Mick Hucknall's crackling vocals were just as exuberant, and the band's Stax/Volt-influenced lines were effectively played. They did turn in an interesting version of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye."

One Of The Boys

Katy Perry
Katy Perry distills every reprehensible thing about the age of "The Hills" into one pop album. She disses her boyfriend with gay-baiting; she makes out with a girl and she doesn't even like girls; she brags to a suitor that he can't afford her, parties till she's face-down in the porcelain, drops brands as if they were weapons, curses casually, and trades under-the-table favors. In short, she's styled herself as a Montag monster. Perry is not untalented -- she writes like an ungarbled Alanis and has an eye for details -- but that only accentuates how her vile wild-child persona is an artifice designed to get her the stardom she craves.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Big Bad World

Plain White T's
After "Hey There Delilah" turned the Plain White T's into 2007's most unexpected success story, the band decamped to Malibu to dream up a proper follow-up. Arriving one year later, Big Bad World is a refreshingly smart release that emphasizes the band's pop/rock leanings. Slower songs dot the set list, but the Plain White T's never attempt to recreate the magic that fueled "Hey There Delilah," focusing instead on slick, sunny songcraft with nary an acoustic guitar in sight. Perhaps fueled by his recent success, frontman Tom Higgenson is in fine voice here, particularly when flanked by his bandmates' harmonies. "Big Bad World" and "Natural Disaster" introduce that tight vocal sound, while "Sunlight" takes its cues from '70s soft rock, boasting a gauzy chorus that takes a page from the Eagles' songbook. Most punk-pop musicians wouldn't be caught dead with an Eagles tune on their iPods, but Plain White T's have always prized pop above punk. Accordingly, pop forms the basis of Big Bad World -- not acoustic balladry, as the success of "Hey There Delilah" would suggest, and not emo-tinged punk, despite the many publications that categorize the band's music as such. Other groups traffic in similar circles, and bands like Jimmy Eat World and The Academy Is... (whose 2008 release, Fast Times at Barrington High, arrived just several weeks before this album) arguably do it better. Still, Big Bad World is a tidy, enjoyable release, and the Plain White T's deserve points for remaining grounded after a meteoric year.

Tetra

C2C
Previously best known for winning the Disco Mix Club World Team DJ Championship four consecutive years in a row, French turntablist crew C2C brought their unique electro-funk sound to the masses with their chart-topping debut album, Tetra. Alongside the hit single "The Cell," and collaborations with Pigeon John ("Because of You"), Olivier Daysoul ("Who Are You"), and Jay-Jay Johanson ("Give Up the Ghost"), there are also four tracks plucked from their 2012 EP Down the Road.

Jon O'Brien, Rovi

Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

Jimmy Buffett
One reason why Jimmy Buffett's sixth album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, is his best record yet is simply the sound. Buffett's move from Don Gant, who produced his last four albums, to Norbert Putnam is a serious upgrade. Putnam, a bassist by trade with a talent for string arranging, specializes in working in Nashville with artists who don't quite belong in Nashville. His production of Eric Andersen's Blue River resulted in a masterpiece, and he's done quality work with the likes of Joan Baez, Neil Young, and Dan Fogelberg, creating a country-pop sound that achieves the crossover such artists crave. Putnam is a perfect fit for Buffett; he gives the music the polish Buffett's always needed. But that only explains the reason why the album works so well sonically. The main reason it's Buffett's best is the songs, most of which he wrote. Buffett has always been a good songwriter when he had the time to apply himself, and he's been developing a persona that reaches its culmination here. Or, it might be said that the persona takes a logical next step. Buffett's alter ego is something of a screwup, a guy who's on the road, sometimes defined as a traveling musician, and who fuels himself on liquor and recreational drugs. He wants to get home to his loved ones, but he's actually not in that much of a hurry to do so. The guy who sang "Come Monday" in 1974 ("I just want you back by my side") has evolved into someone who's been on the road so long that he and his pals "Wonder Why We Ever Go Home." He may, as he claims, "Miss You So Badly," but he also acknowledges, "The longer I'm gone the closer I feel to you." When he is at home, he is clearly at loose ends, and this is where Buffett's observations are most acute, as he leads off the LP's two sides with its two best songs. The title tune finds him world-weary yet ready to head off again. "If I wasn't crazy I would go insane," goes the chorus. And the culmination of it all comes on the irresistibly catchy, completely self-deprecating "Margaritaville," a guitar-strumming beach bum's declaration of purpose (or purposelessness). He can't remember how he got a new tattoo, he has cut his foot on the "pop top" of a beer can, and his heart seems to have been broken some time in the past (he doesn't seem to remember all that well), but soon his blender will finish stirring up his favorite drink and all will be well. The song is an anthem for the Buffett character and likely to prove an archetype.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Meantime

Helmet
In 1991, Interscope won a ferocious multi-label bidding war (which according to firsthand accounts, pitted an estimated 18 to 22 different labels against each other) and signed Helmet for a reported cool one-million-plus dollars. Under the watchful eye of the record biz, and on the heels of Nirvana's huge commercial breakthrough, Helmet were curiously touted as the next big thing. Unsurprisingly, expectations would never be fully realized. Arguably one of the most influential and overlooked rock records of the '90s, Meantime threw the rule book out the window. Led by the classically trained Page Hamilton, Helmet's bludgeoning riffs combined with their stop-go-stop-go minimalist attack changed the face of aggro-rock. Its importance cannot be overstated. From the Steve Albini-produced title track through "Role Model," the band is relentless. On "Give It," Hamilton spews "killing hurts/has to be done/peace and love/who's number one," and later "the right to give/learn to bleed/it's free/pain is outside/lift it up to see." As the hypnotic riff and John Stanier's piccolo snare echo throughout, the band thrashes through the song like a ten-ton hammer. Again, every song is colored by Teutonic riffs, with only "Unsung" hinting at a gasp of commercial accessibility.

John Franck, Rovi

Jailbreak

Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy found their trademark twin-guitar sound on 1975's Fighting, but it was on its 1976 successor, Jailbreak, where the band truly took flight. Unlike the leap between Night Life and Fighting, there is not a great distance between Jailbreak and its predecessor. If anything, the album was more of a culmination of everything that came before, as Phil Lynott hit a peak as a songwriter just as guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson pioneered an intertwined, dual-lead guitar interplay that was one of the most distinctive sounds of '70s rock, and one of the most influential. Lynott no longer let Gorham and Robertson contribute individual songs -- they co-wrote, but had no individual credits -- which helps tighten up the album, giving it a cohesive personality, namely Lynott's rough rebel with a heart of a poet. Lynott loves turning the commonplace into legend -- or bringing myth into the modern world, as he does on "Cowboy Song" or, to a lesser extent, "Romeo and the Lonely Girl" -- and this myth-making is married to an exceptional eye for details; when the boys are back in town, they don't just come back to a local bar, they're down at Dino's, picking up girls and driving the old men crazy. This gives his lovingly florid songs, crammed with specifics and overflowing with life, a universality that's hammered home by the vicious, primal, and precise attack of the band. Thin Lizzy is tough as rhino skin and as brutal as bandits, but it's leavened by Lynott's light touch as a singer, which is almost seductive in its croon. This gives Jailbreak a dimension of richness that sustains, but there's such kinetic energy to the band that it still sounds immediate no matter how many times it's played. Either one would make it a classic, but both qualities in one record makes it a truly exceptional album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi