Miranda Lambert
While Miranda Lambert’s first two albums spun tales of kerosene fires, bar fights, and firearmed vengeance, Revolution finds the Texan taking some degree of comfort in her relationship with Blake Shelton, whose influence helps govern the album’s mellow moments. Lambert has never played by anyone’s rules, but she has carved out her own set of principles over the course of a four-year career. Accordingly, Revolution offers a strong, cohesive take on what has quickly become the “Lambert sound”: a blend of lilting ballads and loud, fire-breathing anthems (many of which owe as much to rock as country). She’s also more comfortable with the slower songs this time around, and “Dead Flowers” is perhaps her strongest vocal performance to date.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Little Voice

Sara Bareilles
For her first major outing Little Voice, Sara Bareilles puts forth an intimate, emotionally charged album that sounds remarkably polished for a fledgling self-taught songwriter/performer. In fact, her voice even stands up to professionally trained pop divas like Christina Aguilera. Her only potential downfall is that she fits so perfectly in the adult contemporary female pianist mold that comparisons are inevitable -- Bareilles' vocal range is similar to Fiona Apple and she bears a striking physical resemblance to a merged composite of Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch. Despite the plethora of comparable looking and sounding artists, she still manages to stand out. The songs are sultry and generally upbeat, and delivered in a soulful manner with polished production and arrangement, but her X factor is in her ability to make it all sound unforced and very, very easy. Unquestionably, she's a natural with a huge voice and personality that shine through with spirited energy here. Perhaps the best and most original track is the ultra-peppy (think "Benny and the Jets") "Love on the Rocks" (not to be confused with the Neil Diamond number). With a warm wah-wah guitar and meandering Motown-esque harmonies, it makes for a perfect summertime love song. Undoubtedly her expertise is writing love songs like this, evident by song titles like "Love Song" and "One Sweet Love," but there are enough uniquely spun takes on the subject to make it interesting. In "Fairytale," children's stories are used as a metaphor for escapism and dealing with depression, and with the moody ballad "Gravity," falling in love is compared to getting caught in an inescapable gravitational pull. In the latter tearjerker of a tune, she shows off her chops with a song-stopping vocal crescendo, further proving that she has a style that's something special, even among all the stiff competition.

Jason Lymangrover, Rovi

Follow Me Down

Sarah Jarosz
You can anticipate objections to Sarah Jarosz's sophomore effort from a couple of different directions: those who saw her as someone who would make old-time country music attractive to the Twitter generation may feel that she's abandoned her sacred duty; others may suspect her of suffering from Elvis Costello Syndrome (which causes spoon-bendingly talented musicians to get tired of doing what their talents have made easy for them and to begin pushing the boundaries of their gifts, with sometimes embarrassing results). Neither objection would be correct. First of all, despite the fact that she plays clawhammer banjo and mandolin and is fluent in early-country vernacular, Jarosz's music has always been much more complicated than that; listen past the accent and the frailing on her debut album and you'll hear about eight or ten different musical genres jostling against each other. Second of all, on Follow Me Down, the drum-powered groove of "Come Around" and the newgrass jazziness of "Old Smitty" and the Radiohead cover are not so much departures from what she's done in the past as they are logical next steps. This isn't to say that everything succeeds perfectly; where "Gypsy" is slow and gorgeous and rocks like a tree swing on a summer evening, her version of "The Tourist" merely drags; where "My Muse" is lushly beautiful, "Come Around" is intense but not terribly tuneful. But virtually everything else comes perilously close to perfection, and each song sounds different from all the others. Jarosz's talent is wondrous and in no way normal, and her developing musical maturity continues to be a wonder to watch.

Rick Anderson, Rovi



Unfinished Business

Wanda Jackson
On 2011's The Party Ain't Over, Jack White took it upon himself to remind the world of the greatness of Wanda Jackson, the first lady of rockabilly, by creating a great and gaudy musical spectacle in which the headlining artist often got lost in the shuffle of her own album. A year later, Jackson headed back into the studio, this time with Justin Townes Earle behind the controls, and the title Unfinished Business faintly suggests this album was meant as a corrective to the folly of her collaboration with White. It certainly suits Jackson and her gifts better than The Party Ain't Over; Earle has set Jackson up with a solid studio band (usually just guitar, bass, keys, drums, and sometimes pedal steel) and for the most part, they kept out of her way, giving her just enough space to show she still has the goods. Jackson's instrument is weaker than it was in her prime -- no great surprise from a woman nearly 75 years old -- but her phrasing is still on target, and she's got spunk and attitude to spare; when she tells off a two-timing suitor on "Pushover," the scenario not only sounds plausible, but you sure don't want to be in that guy's shoes. Unfinished Business nods to the totality of Jackson's career, so while old-school rock & roll dominates the set, she also shows off her estimable skills singing vintage country (particularly on "What Do You Do When You're Lonesome," written by Earle, and "Am I Even a Memory," in which he delivers a fine duet vocal) and gospel (a fervent take on Townes Van Zandt's "Two Hands"). And Jackson shows her mettle on two surprising selections -- she sounds tough and sassy on Bobby Womack's classic "It's All Over Now," and delivers a warm, graceful interpretation of the Jeff Tweedy/Woody Guthrie collaboration "California Stars." Wanda Jackson's best records were simple at heart -- give the gal a good song and a good band, and she can do the rest. Unfinished Business shows that six decades after her first recordings, that strategy still works, and she can still deliver the goods without a lot of needless fuss.

Mark Deming, Rovi

Still Life

Kylie Auldist

The Crossing

Sophie B. Hawkins
After an eight-year absence, during which she gave birth to a son, lost her father, and became an outspoken political activist, Sophie B. Hawkins hasn't exactly been short of inspiration for her long-awaited fifth album, The Crossing. But whilst there are the occasional flourishes of personal reflection, such as the breathless jazz-tinged "A Child" and the '90s coffee house pop of "Georgia," both inspired by her newborn child, the follow-up to 2004's Wilderness is more concerned with putting the world to rights than any kind of soul-searching. It's an impassioned and gutsy approach which works wonders on the opening trio of "Betchya Got a Cure for Me," a twanging slice of country-blues influenced by the media wars during the 2008 Presidential campaign, an achingly raw, Janis Joplin-esque take on the Nina Simone classic "Sinner Man," and "The Land, The Sea & the Sky," a gentle, understated acoustic number written as a response to 2011's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But long before the overly generous 17 tracks reach their half-way point, Hawkins appears to lose her direction and instead drifts into a series of largely unremarkable stripped-back ballads, which apart from the smoky '50s jazz bar vibes of "Dream Street & Chance," lack any real bite or purpose. A pointless demo of the gospel-tinged "Missing," and unplugged versions of '90s hits "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" and "As I Lay Me Down" only add to the sense that she perhaps lost her focus somewhere along the line. And while there are moments which hark back to the engaging confessional pop of Tongues & Tails and Whaler, The Crossing is just too ordinary to be the career-reviver she needs.

Jon O'Brien, Rovi


Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco has earned her rep as the most independent of artists. She records for her own label, and as a result says and does pretty much as she pleases. DiFranco has also shown a willingness to experiment, mixing genres and styles, and Evolve is clearly an important link in her continued evolution. Piano, horns, and guitar mix and merge on "Promised Land," offering a bluesy blend of progressive folk, while a heavy backbeat informs the funky "In My Way." The arrangements are much busier than the "girl with an acoustic guitar" sound of her earliest efforts, but they're never crowded. In fact, DiFranco's such a dynamic singer, at turns soulful and, when angry, in the listener's face, that the heavier arrangements serve her well. The arrangements and solid production, however, aren't enough to save the material. As with 2001's Revelling: Reckoning, Evolve lacks consistency and finally seems meandering. "Icarus"' foreboding melody line drags at a dawdling pace, stopping and starting again, and finally, going nowhere. The worst excess is "Serpentine." It takes three minutes for the vocal to start, and seven more for DiFranco to catalog everything that isn't right in the Promised Land. It's as though she were trying to write her version of Dylan's "Desolation Row," but failed to match her lyrical vision with a compelling musical one. DiFranco's fans will forgive her these excesses because they've grown used to them; everyone else will probably want to reach back to earlier albums like Not a Pretty Girl to hear the DiFranco at her best.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr., Rovi

Eye To The Telescope

KT Tunstall
Perhaps it's inevitable that K.T. Tunstall's Eye to the Telescope will draw initial comparisons to Dido, since they're both female adult alternative singer/songwriters who bear a certain similarity in their vocal timbres. But as Tunstall's debut starts to unfold, those superficial connections fall away, as she reveals herself to be a soulful vocalist, a restless musician, and a serious songwriter. At times, she may be on the verge of being a little too serious, as her songs are tightly wound and earnest, two qualities that can seem slightly stuffy when her production has a glossy veneer, as it does on opening songs of the album. These cuts, while accomplished and enjoyable, paint Tunstall as a good but ordinary songwriter, halfway between Dido's elegantly sleepy soundscapes and Sheryl Crow's tuneful craft, which is an inaccurate impression, as the album quickly proves. About a third of the way in, the album kicks into gear and Tunstall is revealed as a kindred spirit of such eccentric contemporaries as Fiona Apple and Nelly Furtado. She's more straightforward than either Apple or Furtado, partially due to the album's overly slick production, but also in her sober, uncluttered songwriting, yet her musical instincts, along with her impassioned vocals, edge her out of the mainstream. Slower songs like "False Alarm" aren't sleepy; they have the lazy, jazzy undercurrents of Jeff Buckley and Radiohead, while faster cuts like the single "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" or "Suddenly I See" have an urgency that makes them compelling, despite the shiny production. But that production is the only drawback on Eye to the Telescope -- it certainly sounds good, it certainly sounds professional, but it may keep some listeners at a distance, since it requires that they look hard to find the unique songwriter beneath the glistening surface. And if they spend the time to really hear what's going on in Eye to the Telescope, they'll find a promising, satisfying debut.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Paula Abdul

Introducing Joss Stone

Joss Stone
Typically, artists dispense with introductions after their debut -- after all, that is an album designed to introduce them to the world -- but neo-soul singer Joss Stone defiantly titled her third album Introducing Joss Stone, thereby dismissing her first two relatively acclaimed albums with one smooth stroke. She now claims that those records were made under record-label pressure -- neatly contradicting the party line that her debut, The Soul Sessions, turned into a retro-soul project after Joss implored her label to ditch the Christina Aguilera-styled urban-pop she was pursuing -- but now as a young adult of 19, she's free to pursue her muse in her own fashion. All this is back-story to Introducing, but Stone makes her modern metamorphosis plain on the album's very first track, where football-star-turned-Hollywood-muscle Vinnie Jones talks about change ("I see change, I embody change, all we do is change, yeah, I know change, we're born to change" and so on and so forth), setting the stage for some surprise -- which "Girl They Won't Believe It" kind of delivers, if only because it isn't all that different from what Stone has done before. It's a sprightly slice of Northern soul propelled by a bouncy Motown beat that doesn't suggest a change in direction as much as a slight shift in aesthetic. Gone are the seasoned studio pros, in are a bevy of big-name producers all united in a mission to make Stone seem a little less like a '60s blue-eyed soul diva and a little more her age, a little more like a modern girl in 2007. So, the professional in-the-pocket grooves have been replaced by drum loops, the warm burnished sound has been ditched in favor of crisp, bright sonics, Harlan Howard covers have been pushed aside for cameos by Common and Lauryn Hill. It's a cosmetic change that works: Introducing does sound brighter, fresher than her other two albums, pitched partway between Amy Winehouse and Back to Basics Christina yet sounding very much like Texas at their prime.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Indestructible Machine

Lydia Loveless
If you're someone who seeks out the place where punk rock, country music, crafted songwriting, and raw, immediate, visceral garagey rock & roll meet, look no further than Indestructible Machine, the Bloodshot debut of Lydia Loveless. The 21-year-old Ohioan is the product of a rock & roll drummer daddy (who plays in her band), a Loretta Lynn-worshiping momma, and a boyfriend who hipped her to country music's outlaws and the latter-day XXX-brand country of Hank III, Shooter Jennings, etc. Indestructible Machine reflects all this, but Loveless is more than the sum of her influences: her writing and singing talents are in their own class. She has a big throaty voice that recalls Neko Case's at first blush, but Loveless' is bigger, richer, more expressive -- her singing owes more to singers Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley. She's backed by a bona fide careening country sextet with lead guitarist Todd May, banjo boss Rob Woodruff, pedal steel player Barry Hensley, fiddler Adrian Jusdanis, Ben Lamb on bass, and dad Parker Chandler on skins. The set kicks off at 100 miles per with "Bad Way to Go." The banjo and guitar struggle for dominance, the snare and kick drums skitter at a gallop, and Loveless wails atop a charging bassline. Her colorful language is filled with double and triple entendres and images of a seedy America reflected in the rear-view mirror. "Can't Change Me" is a feminist anthem that stays on electrical overload but in a minor key. "How Many Women" is a straight-up honky tonk weeper. "Jesus Was a Wino" is a rockin' triple-time 2-step that celebrates the Son of God's empathy for the struggling human race. The song "Steve Earle" simply has to be heard to be believed; it's hysterically funny. If the Rolling Stones had ever recorded with the young Emmylou Harris when she was part of Gram Parsons' band, it might have sounded similar to "Learn to Say No," one of the finest moments on the record. "Do Right," with its NASCAR-fueled bluegrass tempo and dueling banjo and guitars, is an unapologetic paean to the consequences of substance abuse. "Crazy" is a spare country lust song worthy of Charles Bukowski. Lydia Loveless' Indestructible Machine possesses a classicist's grip of country, a rock & roll sense of swagger, and the keen eye of a songwriter twice her age.

Thom Jurek, Rovi


Spice Girls
The Spice Girls, as well as their managers and songwriters, are nothing if not clever, and Spiceworld, the group's second album, illustrates exactly how sharp they are. Conventional wisdom dictates that Spiceworld should be a weak facsimile of Spice, which itself featured a handful of great singles surrounded by filler. Conventional wisdom, in this case, is wrong -- Spiceworld is a better record than its predecessor, boasting a more consistent (and catchier) set of songs and an intoxicating sense of fun. Instead of merely rewriting Spice, Spiceworld consolidates and expands the group's style, adding Latin flourishes ("Spice Up Your Life"), kitschy blues ("The Lady Is a Vamp"), and stomping, neo-Motown blue-eyed soul in the vein of Culture Club ("Stop"). The girls -- Mel C. in particular -- are actually turning into good vocalists, and each song plays to their strengths, giving each Spice a chance to shine. Best of all, each song has a strong melody and a strong, solid beat, whether it's a ballad or a dance number. It's a pure, unadulterated guilty pleasure and some of the best manufactured mainstream dance-pop of the late '90s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Wilson Phillips

Wilson Phillips

Bigger, Better, Faster, More!

4 Non Blondes
San Francisco's 4 Non Blondes burst onto the national scene with their massive, neo-hippie anthem "What's Up" from their debut Bigger, Better, Faster, More? Although they failed to recreate the single's success, the album, as a whole, is a fairly engaging mix of alternative rock, quasi-funk, and blues.

The focal point is on lead singer Linda Perry who also plays guitar and was the primary writer of the material. Perry has a powerful set of pipes akin to Johnette Napolitano, but, unfortunately, she tends to cut loose when a little more restraint would benefit the proceedings. However, "Superfly" is a feel good, funky number and "Spaceman"'s yearning lyrics are delivered over a quiet, martial drum rhythm. A solid debut that got lost in the wake of its mammoth hit.

Tom Demalon, Rovi

Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer
Produced by Scott Hendricks (Faith Hill, Trace Adkins), the eponymous debut from Detroit-born, actress/singer/songwriter Jana Kramer features 11 radio-ready, country-pop gems that run the gamut from cool and mischievous ("If You Wanna") to heartbroken and tender ("Good as When You're Bad"). With her model looks and visual arts pedigree, it's tempting to compare Kramer to Julianne Hough, but the One Tree Hill star's first musical offering does a nice job blending the contemporary twang of artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift with the tradtionalist spirit of classic country and folk crooners like Patsy Cline and James Taylor., Rovi

My Paper Heart

Francesca Battistelli
When it was released in the summer of 2008, Francesca Battistelli's My Paper Heart garnered attention in CCM circles because of "I'm Letting Go," a single that sounded like a B-side to Sara Bareilles' ubiquitous "Love Song," an adult contemporary hit at the time. It seemed like an opportunistic move on the part of her handlers, but Battistelli was no copycat: the rest of My Paper Heart positioned her as an up-and-coming singer/songwriter in her own right, a youthful songstress with a smoky, soulful voice -- much like a younger, faith-based version of Fiona Apple or Rachael Yamagata. Battistelli's dealings aren't quite as somber and jazzy as those singers' -- she does, after all, operate within the confines of Christian music, where a certain degree of exuberance is almost required -- but she is heartfelt and transparent in her delivery. Her warmth and her aptitude in adopting various sensibilities -- soft R&B, piano pop, balladry -- render Battistelli a talent to watch in years to come.

Andree Farias, Rovi

Bring It On Home

Joan Osborne
Singer and songwriter Joan Osborne is no stranger to covering vintage soul, R&B, and blues. She did so on 2002's How Sweet It Is and 2007's Breakfast in Bed, and in the documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Osborne has also flexed her muscles as a producer for the Holmes Brothers, capturing their live vibe better than anyone else. For Bring It on Home, Osborne -- with co-producer Jack Petruzzelli, her road band, a horn section, and the Holmes Brothers on backing vocals -- turns in the rawest, most kinetic moment in her recording career, digging into the very wellspring of soul, blues, and R&B. The material is stellar, beginning with Ashford & Simpson's Ray Charles' vehicle, "I Don't Need No Doctor." She grinds deeply into its grain, with drummer Aaron Comess' popping breaks. Jimmy Vivino's horn chart is clean but aggressive. The title track, defined by Sonny Boy Williamson, is given a sultry reading. Osborne's restraint is airy but defined; the listener can feel tension smoldering underneath. Barbecue Bob Pomeroy's harmonica is a brilliant counterpart, releasing steam from what's roiling underneath her voice. The choice of the obscure "Roll Like a Big Wheel," by Olive Brown is a burning R&B shouter, with smokin' harmonica and horns; Osborne's voice rises above the fray and locks the groove down tight. Ike Turner's "Game of Love" -- written specifically for Tina -- is a grimy, funky, nasty, strutting feminist anthem in Osborne's version; its meaning (and irony) never more clear. Her raucous transformation of John Mayall's "Broken Wing" is a revelation. Allen Toussaint's '70s-era funky reggae "Shoorah! Shoorah!" is a delightful curveball here, and features the author on piano. Osborne's read of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" comes right from the blues; it's righteous. She burns on Muddy Waters' "I Want to Be Loved," which, in her voice, is more demand than request. The nakedness in her vocal in Bill Withers' "Same Love That Made Me Laugh" reveals the layers in its meaning. Her understated take on Otis Redding's "Champagne and Wine" is gorgeous, with a distorted slide guitar bearing witness to the subtle nuances in Osborne's employs that make plain the desire in the lyric. Ultimately, there isn't a performance here that isn't drenched with passion and a stylist's invention. This isn't a reverential recording; it's authoritative; she makes these songs her own. Bring It on Home carries Osborne's mature voice in way that's never been heard from her before. Her abilities as an interpretive singer prove her an extension of these traditions, not merely a torch bearer for them.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

The Strange Case Of...



Georgia Anne Muldrow
Since emerging from L.A.'s indie soul scene in the mid-'00s, Georgia Anne Muldrow has issued numerous projects espousing funk as life-changing epiphany. Her latest, Seeds, is one of her best. That's partly due to Madlib, the eccentric Stones Throw Records beatmaker who loops '70s soul and jazz samples into a brightly melodic background for Muldrow's inspired lyricism. A California hippie who wears her heart on her sleeve—she titled her 2004 debut EP Worthnothings after a brief and disastrous move to New York—Muldrow pushes her voice until it wavers, seemingly about to break. She's a raw and emotional singer, and overflows with convictions.

On "Wind," she remembers her father, the late jazz guitarist Ronald Muldrow, by describing him as a fisherman dutifully caring for his children; and she claims that the world is in a Dark Age, or "Kali Yuga," adding that we should "Google it" if we don't know what that means. "Husfriend" is a loving tribute to her husband, rapper/vocalist Dudley Perkins, and at one point he appears on the album, too. More than just a family affair, Seeds is Muldrow's vision of spiritual sustenance. It's hopelessly idealistic, but that's part of its charm.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Gifted - Women of the World

Various Artists
The work of female vocalists has been a core part of the Real World's releases since the label's inception. Charismatic and stylistically flexible artists like Sheila Chandra and Yungchen Lhamo have the kind of listener-friendly sound that allows for easy crossover into pop without having to sacrifice too much musical heritage. So, it isn't surprising to see Real World commemorate their roster of female artists with this compilation. Originally sponsored as part of a promotion for Perfumes Cacharel, this compilation delivers much higher quality than one might expect from a cross-branded product. Indeed, the disc is a pleasant mix of pop hits like Sheila Chandra's "Ever So Lonely" with still-strong but lesser-known songs like Assitan Mama Keita's "Baro." Excellent tracks from Susana Baca, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Estrella Morente, and Shruti Sadolikar help round out the rest of a consistently strong roster.

Stacia Proefrock, Rovi


Back with a new label and a darker sound, Finland's Värttinä have obviously taken a little time to reappraise their music. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing before, but obviously it was time for a change, and with Miero, that's apparent from the opening strains of "Riena." The vocals are still very much front and center, but this time there seems to be a stronger integration between the singing and the instruments, where they push and wind around each other. While they've often indulged their passions for frantic songs in the past, it's tempered this time, with more shading in the arrangements, closing with the near-lullaby of "Vaiten Valvion" and its quiet tones. What they've really done is finessed their sound, adding more texture, slowing it a little, and bringing out more of the resonances in the material. It's perhaps their most accomplished record yet, and one they needed to make to give their sound in a small, but important change in direction.

Chris Nickson, Rovi