Tax Day Flash Sale

Justified

Justin Timberlake
With his debut solo album, Justified, Justin Timberlake borrows from Michael Jackson, from the Thriller-era getup and poses to the sharply modernized spin on the classic Off the Wall sound. To be sure, the sound of the Neptunes productions which dominate Justified is the best thing about the album; they have a lush, sexy, stylish feel that is better, more romantic than most modern R&B. Timberlake is a technically skilled vocalist, with a smooth falsetto. The songs are pretty on the surface -- apart from some flop Timbaland productions (which he redeems with the slinky funk of "Right for Me"), the sound of Justified works well.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Some Nights

Fun.
Fun.'s debut album Aim and Ignite was an interesting blend of seemingly divergent styles topped by a healthy dose of grandiose ambition and performed with a precise abandon. The trio made an album that was truly progressive and also super catchy and fun. The follow-up, Some Nights, ramps up the ambition and sonic bombast, but also manages to be even more powerful and impressive. While writing and planning the album, singer Nate Ruess, guitarist Jack Antonoff, and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost were heavily influenced by both the sound and scope of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and made every attempt to achieve something similar, even to the point of hiring that album's co-producer Jeff Bhasker to produce and craft beats for them. (Also Emile Haynie, who has worked with Eminem among others) Though the album has more of a hip-hop influence than Aim and Ignite did, there are still large doses of Queen and ELO coursing through the band's blood, both in the machine-crafted vocal harmonies and the ornate bigness of the sound. The album is overloaded with strings and horns, backing vocals, keyboards, and programmed drums surrounding Ruess like a clamoring crowd, but never drowning out his innately sincere vocals and painfully honest lyrics. He has the kind of voice that could cut through any amount of noise, not by using volume but honesty. Even when he's fed through Auto-Tune, you know he's telling you the truth all the time. On songs like the lead single "We Are Young" or the rollicking "All Alone," he provides a very human core that grounds things even as the music builds to ornate crescendos. Indeed, the album is really, really big sounding and could easily have ended up collapsing under its own weight and pretension, but the opposite happens and Some Nights takes flight instead. The songs are both anthemic and human-sized, the heartfelt words and naked emotions are never buried, and the music is uplifting, not overpowering. The trio has crafted a record that measures up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy musically and delivers enough emotional charge to power a small town for a month. It's an impressive achievement and Fun. deserves every bit of acclaim that comes its way because of it.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Curtain Call: The Hits

Eminem
If Eminem's Curtain Call: The Hits really is his final bow and not merely a clever denouement to his series of Eminem Show and Encore albums, it's a worthy way to retire. And even if he stages a comeback years from now, there's little question that the first five years of his career, spanning four albums plus a soundtrack, will be his popular and creative peak, meaning that the time is right for Curtain Call -- it has all the songs upon which his legend lies. Which isn't necessarily the same things as all the hits. There are a few odds and ends missing -- most notably one of his first hip-hop hits, "Just Don't Give a F***," plus 2003's "Superman" and 2005's "Ass Like That" -- but all the big songs are here: "Guilty Conscience," "My Name Is," "Stan," "The Real Slim Shady," "The Way I Am," "Cleanin' Out My Closet," "Lose Yourself," "Without Me" and "Just Lose It." They're not presented in chronological order, which by and large isn't a problem, since the sequencing here not only has a good, logical momentum, alternating between faster and slower tracks, but they're all part of a body of work that's one of the liveliest, most inventive in pop music in the 21st century. The only exception to the rule are the three new songs here, all finding Shady sounding somewhat thin. There's the closing "When I'm Gone," a sentimental chapter in the Eminem domestic psychodrama that bears the unmistakable suggestion that Em is going away for a while. While it's not up to the standard of "Mockingbird," it is more fully realized than the two other new cuts here, both sex songs that find Shady sounding as if he's drifting along in his own orbit. "Shake That" has an incongruous Nate Dogg crooning the chorus, while the wildly weird "Fack" finds Eminem spending the entire track fighting off an orgasm; it seems tired, a little too close to vulgar Weird Al territory, and it doesn't help that his Jenna Jameson reference seems a little old (everybody knows that the busty porno "It" girl of 2005 is Jesse Jane; after all, she even was in Entourage). Even if these three cuts suggest why Eminem is, if not retiring, at least taking a long break, that's fine: they're reasonably good and are bolstered by the rest of the songs here, which don't just capture him at his best, but retain their energy, humor, weirdness, and vitality even after they've long become overly familiar. And that means Curtain Call isn't just a good way to bow out, but it's a great greatest-hits album by any measure.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Hybrid Theory

Linkin Park
Linkin Park originally called itself Hybrid Theory and has retained that phrase for the title of its debut album. The "hybrid" in question is one of rap and metal. The guitars and drums lock into standard thrash patterns, over which singer Chester Bennington and rapper Mike Shinoda alternate in furious expressions of rage and frustration. "One Step Closer," the track released to radio in advance of the album's release, is a typical effort, with lyrics like "Everything you say to me/Takes me one step closer to the edge/And I'm about to break."

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

The Joshua Tree

U2
Using the textured sonics of The Unforgettable Fire as a basis, U2 expanded those innovations by scaling back the songs to a personal setting and adding a grittier attack for its follow-up, The Joshua Tree. It's a move that returns them to the sweeping, anthemic rock of War, but if War was an exploding political bomb, The Joshua Tree is a journey through its aftermath, trying to find sense and hope in the desperation. That means that even the anthems -- the epic opener "Where the Streets Have No Name," the yearning "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- have seeds of doubt within their soaring choruses, and those fears take root throughout the album, whether it's in the mournful sliding acoustic guitars of "Running to Stand Still," the surging "One Tree Hill," or the hypnotic elegy "Mothers of the Disappeared." So it might seem a little ironic that U2 became superstars on the back of such a dark record, but their focus has never been clearer, nor has their music been catchier, than on The Joshua Tree. Unexpectedly, U2 have also tempered their textural post-punk with American influences. Not only are Bono's lyrics obsessed with America, but country and blues influences are heard throughout the record, and instead of using these as roots, they're used as ways to add texture to the music. With the uniformly excellent songs -- only the clumsy, heavy rock and portentous lyrics of "Bullet the Blue Sky" fall flat -- the result is a powerful, uncompromising record that became a hit due to its vision and its melody. Never before have U2's big messages sounded so direct and personal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Purple Rain

Prince and the Revolution

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

After The Gold Rush

Neil Young
In the 15 months between the release of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush, Neil Young issued a series of recordings in different styles that could have prepared his listeners for the differences between the two LPs. His two compositions on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, "Helpless" and "Country Girl," returned him to the folk and country styles he had pursued before delving into the hard rock of Everybody Knows; two other singles, "Sugar Mountain" and "Oh, Lonesome Me," also emphasized those roots. But "Ohio," a CSNY single, rocked as hard as anything on the second album. After the Gold Rush was recorded with the aid of Nils Lofgren, a 17-year-old unknown whose piano was a major instrument, turning one of the few real rockers, "Southern Man" (which had unsparing protest lyrics typical of Phil Ochs), into a more stately effort than anything on the previous album and giving a classic tone to the title track, a mystical ballad that featured some of Young's most imaginative lyrics and became one of his most memorable songs. But much of After the Gold Rush consisted of country-folk love songs, which consolidated the audience Young had earned through his tours and recordings with CSNY; its dark yet hopeful tone matched the tenor of the times in 1970, making it one of the definitive singer/songwriter albums, and it has remained among Young's major achievements.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Thank Me Later

Drake
The full-length follow-up to 2009's So Far Gone EP, which reached the Top Ten of the U.S. Billboard 200 and earned Drake a Juno Award, Thank Me Later boasts collaborations with the-Dream, Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne. It's issued through Young Money, the Cash Money subsidiary co-founded by Wayne.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Rumours

Fleetwood Mac
Rumours is the kind of album that transcends its origins and reputation, entering the realm of legend -- it's an album that simply exists outside of criticism and outside of its time, even if it thoroughly captures its era. Prior to this LP, Fleetwood Mac were moderately successful, but here they turned into a full-fledged phenomenon, with Rumours becoming the biggest-selling pop album to date. While its chart success was historic, much of the legend surrounding the record is born from the group's internal turmoil. Unlike most bands, Fleetwood Mac in the mid-'70s were professionally and romantically intertwined, with no less than two couples in the band, but as their professional career took off, the personal side unraveled. Bassist John McVie and his keyboardist/singer wife Christine McVie filed for divorce as guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks split, with Stevie running to drummer Mick Fleetwood, unbeknown to the rest of the band. These personal tensions fueled nearly every song on Rumours, which makes listening to the album a nearly voyeuristic experience. You're eavesdropping on the bandmates singing painful truths about each other, spreading nasty lies and rumors and wallowing in their grief, all in the presence of the person who caused the heartache. Everybody loves gawking at a good public breakup, but if that was all that it took to sell a record, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights would be multi-platinum. No, what made Rumours an unparalleled blockbuster is the quality of the music. Once again masterminded by producer/songwriter/guitarist Buckingham, Rumours is an exceptionally musical piece of work -- he toughens Christine McVie and softens Nicks, adding weird turns to accessibly melodic works, which gives the universal themes of the songs haunting resonance. It also cloaks the raw emotion of the lyrics in deceptively palatable arrangements that made a tune as wrecked and tortured as "Go Your Own Way" an anthemic hit. But that's what makes Rumours such an enduring achievement -- it turns private pain into something universal. Some of these songs may be too familiar, whether through their repeated exposure on FM radio or their use in presidential campaigns, but in the context of the album, each tune, each phrase regains its raw, immediate emotional power -- which is why Rumours touched a nerve upon its 1977 release, and has since transcended its era to be one of the greatest, most compelling pop albums of all time.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Uncaged

Zac Brown Band

Greatest Hits

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Discovery

Daft Punk
Four long years after their debut, Homework, Daft Punk returned with a second full-length, also packed with excellent productions and many of the obligatory nods to the duo's favorite stylistic speed bumps of the 1970s and '80s. Discovery is by no means the same record, though. Deserting the shrieking acid house hysteria of their early work, the album moves in the same smooth filtered disco circles as the European dance smashes ("Music Sounds Better with You" and "Gym Tonic") that were co-produced by DP's Thomas Bangalter during the group's long interim. If Homework was Daft Punk's Chicago house record, this is definitely the New York garage edition, with co-productions and vocals from Romanthony and Todd Edwards, two of the brightest figures based in New Jersey's fertile garage scene. Also in common with classic East Coast dance and '80s R&B, Discovery surprisingly focuses on songwriting and concise productions, though the pair's visions of bucolic pop on "Digital Love" and "Something About Us" are delivered by an androgynous, vocoderized frontman singing trite (though rather endearing) love lyrics. "One More Time," the irresistible album opener and first single, takes Bangalter's "Music Sounds Better with You" as a blueprint, blending sampled horns with some retro bass thump and the gorgeous, extroverted vocals of Romanthony going round and round with apparently endless tweakings. Though "Aerodynamic" and "Superheroes" have a bit of the driving acid minimalism associated with Homework, here Daft Punk is more taken with the glammier, poppier sound of Eurodisco and late R&B. Abusing their pitch-bend and vocoder effects as though they were going out of style (about 15 years too late, come to think of it), the duo loops nearly everything they can get their sequencers on -- divas, vocoders, synth-guitars, electric piano -- and conjures a sound worthy of bygone electro-pop technicians from Giorgio Moroder to Todd Rundgren to Steve Miller. Daft Punk are such stellar, meticulous producers that they make "any" sound work, even superficially dated ones like spastic early-'80s electro/R&B ("Short Circuit") or faux-orchestral synthesizer baroque ("Veridis Quo"). The only crime here is burying the highlight of the entire LP near the end. "Face to Face," a track with garage wunderkind Todd Edwards, twists his trademarked split-second samples and fully fragmented vision of garage into a dance-pop hit that could've easily stormed the charts in 1987. Daft Punk even manage a sense of humor about their own work, closing with a ten-minute track aptly titled "Too Long."

John Bush, Rovi

Rebel Soul

Kid Rock
Though he prefigured the Jason Aldean/Colt Ford blend of hip-hop, rock and outlaw country by over a decade, Kid Rock has continued evolving. Rebel Soul roughly follows the path he began traveling with his self-titled 2003 album. In other words, it's a boozy, bluesy, good-time rock 'n' roll record with shades of the Stones and Southern rock, but this time the lyrics aren't all about partying. "Let's Ride," "3 CATT Boogie" and others show that the notoriously hedonistic Kid has national and global politics on his mind, and he's not shy about airing his opinions. Rebel Soul rounds things out with covers of '60s Detroit R&B singer Ronnie Love ("Detroit, Michigan") and Jersey roots-rocker John Eddie ("Happy New Year"), showing that Kid Rock's no one-trick pony either lyrically or musically.

Jim Allen, 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

Grace

Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley was many things, but humble wasn't one of them. Grace is an audacious debut album, filled with sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics, and above all, the richly textured voice of Buckley himself, which resembled a cross between Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and his father Tim. And that's a fair starting point for his music: Grace sounds like a Led Zeppelin album written by an ambitious folkie with a fondness for lounge jazz. At his best -- the soaring title track, "Last Goodbye," and the mournful "Lover, You Should've Come Over" -- Buckley's grasp met his reach with startling results; at its worst, Grace is merely promising. [An LP version was also released.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

I Am...Sasha Fierce

Beyoncé
In non-Deluxe Edition form, Beyoncé's third solo studio album is as concise as 2006's B'day, but it is divided into two discs as a way to emphasize the singer's distinct personalities. It's a gimmick, of course -- a flimsy one. Revealed through interviews in 2005, Sasha was said to be Beyoncé's "stage persona," an embodiment of the outgoing, aggressive, on-stage Beyoncé that doesn't necessarily represent the real Beyoncé. Sasha now has a last name (possibly picked up from Tyra Banks, who maybe took a cue from Klymaxx), and is granted half an album (the second disc) to express herself. These five songs, when compared to the majority of B'day, are actually less fun, less impulsive, and yes, less fierce. "Diva," a variation on Lil Wayne's "A Milli," is the only track that could go toe to toe with the likes of B'day's "Freakum Dress" or "Ring the Alarm," at least in terms of audacity. At the other end is "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," a dire "Get Me Bodied" retread. Otherwise, the Sasha Fierce half is full of decent, if easily forgettable, upbeat pop. If placed within the context of an album without a packaging ploy, there'd be little evidence that Beyoncé is making a radical progression or being any more bold than before. It would, if anything, be notable as the least R&B-oriented batch of songs she has made -- that is, if it wasn't for the "I Am" half, essentially a small set of adult contemporary ballads. Acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, contemplative soul searching, and grand sweeping gestures fill it out, with more roots in '70s soft rock than soul. Beyoncé "feels" each line to the fullest extent, which almost rescues the set's staidness. "If I Were a Boy," while sounding like the watery backdrop for a singing competition finale, turns out to be the album's standout, both for its lyrics and Beyoncé's tormented performance. It could have been the song that broke an unfairly neglected adult-R&B singer like Heather Headley into the mainstream, and don't be surprised if a country artist nabs a CMA Award by covering it.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Dreams and Nightmares (Deluxe Version)

Meek Mill

Bangarang

Skrillex
Nominated for five Grammy Awards, shortlisted for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 poll, and courted by everyone from Chicago producer Kaskade to metal icons Korn, former From First to Last frontman Sonny Moore's transition from post-hardcore vocalist to dubstep producer couldn't have realistically gone any smoother. However, despite his unprecedented success, there's still a question as to whether he can apply his now trademark, demonic, wobble bass drops and thumping syncopated beats to a whole album. Named after the battle cry of the lost boys in Steven Spielberg's "Hook", his fourth consecutive EP Bangarang (also his first Top 40 entry in both the U.K. and U.S.) suggests he'll have to be on his game on the forthcoming full-length Voltage if he's to avoid an Emperor's New Clothes scenario. While the bombastic Wall of Sound displayed on 2010's Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites initially provided a unique take on the U.K. dubstep genre, Skrillex's lack of progression means there's a distinct sense of déjà vu among its seven tracks, particularly on the relentless, scattershot bleeps, chopped-up vocal hooks, and repetitive loops of opener "Right In" and the rap-metal fusion of "Kyoto." Even when he does think outside the box -- as on "Right on Time," a percussive, hard house collaboration with 12th Planet and Kill the Noise which eventually builds into a feverish slice of happy hardcore, and "The Devil's Den," a chaotic hook-up with Wolfgang Gartner which takes in everything from old-school rave to ska to techno -- the results are more headache-inducing than thrilling. There are a few more encouraging signs, such as the Doors-featuring "Breakin' a Sweat," which combines proggy guitar hooks, psychedelic organ chords, and Jim Morrison samples with a snarling, Prodigy-esque vocal and a filthy slab of dub bass to produce one of the year's most unexpectedly successful partnerships, and the multi-layered trance of closer "Summit," given an ethereal sheen thanks to Ellie Goulding's lilting tones, both of which suggest Skrillex should utilize his melodic leanings more often. But overall, Bangarang is a disappointingly formulaic affair which hints for the first time that the wheels may soon slowly begin to fall off.

Overexposed

Maroon 5
For Adam Levine, love and sex are wars, and he's a soldier who can't help but be wounded and tortured by all the gorgeous women he engages in battle. "Baby, there you go again making me love you," his falsetto chirps on Overexposed's opener "One More Night." Several songs later, on "Lucky Strike," the lady has Levine "so high—and then she dropped me." Even on the deceptively titled "Ladykiller," the singer warns, "She's in it just to win it/ Don't trust her for a minute." Musically speaking, Maroon 5 continue to bury their neo-U2 alt-rock roots in urban glitz and bounce—Hall & Oates meets Justin Timberlake, in other words. Then again, the soaring romance that is "Daylight" proves they're just as comfortable softening their sound for a modern adult-contemporary scene that was weaned on arena rock. – Justin Farrar, Google Play

-- Justin Farrar, Google Play

The 2nd Law

Muse
Muse have been masters of Olympic Stadium-sized bombast since long before they scored a theme for the actual 2012 London Games, so the inclusion of that theme ("Survival") on The 2nd Law doesn't quite push the proggy alt-rockers' sixth album into unfamiliar territory. That honor belongs to the dubstep synth drills of "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable" and, to a lesser extent, the bass wobbles of "Madness." But whatever the new toys in tow, the Muse war machine marches on with the same oversized, Wagnerian logic as ever: Better or not, more is simply more, and that's always seemed justification enough for Matt Bellamy and company's excesses.
On The 2nd Law those excesses include shameless echoes of U2 in "Big Freeze," and of Queen in the chorus of "Survival," an "I'm gonna win!" that wants desperately to outrace "We Are the Champions."

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1

Lupe Fiasco
For all the artist-label snags Lasers hit prior to its birth, the album topped the Billboard 200, while one of its singles, "The Show Goes On," became Lupe Fiasco's second Top Ten Hot 100 hit. As that album was in limbo, Fiasco began working on his confusingly titled fourth album, a 69-minute "part one" of a sequel to his 2006 debut. It's most certainly not a Lasers sequel. There's no obvious attempt to repeat earlier pop chart successes, and its introduction is indicative, similar to that of 2007's elaborately conceptual The Cool, with Fiasco's sister Ayesha Jaco contributing some more of her commanding poetry. Released only a year and a half after Lasers, the album was likely met with fewer label-related issues, but each one of its first three singles stirred up some controversy. "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" uses the indelible beat from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," considered by many hip-hop fans to be untouchable for its emotional relevance and classic stature. Pete Rock himself objected vehemently, and that conflict was resolved, but the beat is a bad match for the MC's angered, if piercingly focused and thoughtful, rhymes. On "Bitch Bad," Fiasco takes a characteristically authoritarian stance on misogyny. The order of the second and third nouns in the hook -- "Bitch bad/Woman good/Lady better/They misunderstood" -- is one of its many debatable issues. As with many of his songs, the lyrical value (clever, cerebral) is far greater than the musical value (sluggish, meandering). It's much more about delivering a message and provoking debate than replays. For the third single, "Lamborghini Angels," Fiasco is at his detailed and focused best, combining surreal imagery and grim non-fiction over a brilliantly tense beat from Mr. Inkredible. Through this song, the MC covers behavioral programming, child sexual abuse, and Afghan civilian murders in a graphic manner. Don't expect a party. Don't expect to appreciate each method he uses to relay his viewpoints. One can at least appreciate, or at least respect, a rapper capable of dropping an absolute stinger like "But my tone was like a Afghani, killed without a home, blew that bitch up with a drone" like it's nothing.

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

O.N.I.F.C.

Wiz Khalifa
Though Wiz Khalifa found tremendous commercial success with his major label debut Rolling Papers, he didn't do so without making some compromises. On it the Pittsburgh rapper all but abandoned the stoner-friendly contemporary G-Funk of the underground mixtapes upon which he built his grassroots following, in favor of broader pop gestures. With the follow-up, O.N.F.I.C., Wiz seems to be searching for a midpoint between the two approaches, and occasionally finds it. While he's never been a particularly showy rapper, or even a skilled one, his greatest assets are his instincts for penning enormous hooks and his ability to unobtrusively sink his verses into the production. Much of his success falls entirely on beat selection, and while it frequently underwhelms here, whether he chooses full-on pop or quiet storm funk, Wiz sounds most invigorated when he sidesteps these two extremes and explores entirely new terrain, as on the stripped-down trap stomper "It's Nothin'" or the demented and distorted lullabye "Fall Asleep."

Andrew Nosnitsky, 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

#1's

Mariah Carey
Protest as she may -- and she does, claiming in the liner notes that #1's is "not a greatest hits album! It's too soon, I haven't been recording long enough for that!" -- it's hard to view #1's, Mariah Carey's first compilation, as anything other than a greatest-hits album. Carey was fortunate enough to have nearly every single she released top the pop charts. Between 1990's "Vision of Love," and 1998's "My All," all but four commercially released singles ("Anytime You Need a Friend," "Can't Let Go," "Make It Happen," and "Without You") hit number one, with only a handful of radio-only singles ("Butterfly," "Breakdown") making the airwaves, not the charts. That leaves 12 big hits on #1's: all number ones. Since Carey's singles always dominate her albums, it comes as no surprise that #1's is her best, most consistent album, filled with songs that represent state-of-the-art '90s adult contemporary and pop-oriented urban soul. That said, it isn't a perfect overview -- a couple of good singles are missing because of the self-imposed "#1 rule", plus, the Ol' Dirty Bastard mix of "Fantasy" is strong, but fans familiar with the radio single will be disappointed that the chorus is completely missing on this version. The album is also padded with a personal favorite (her Brian McKnight duet "Whenever You Call," taken from Butterfly) and three new songs -- the Jermaine Dupri-produced "Sweetheart," the Whitney Houston duet "When You Believe" (taken from The Prince of Egypt soundtrack), and "I Still Believe" (a remake of a Brenda K. Starr) tune -- which are all fine, but not particularly memorable. Still, that's hardly enough to bring down a thoroughly entertaining compilation that will stand as her best record until the "official" hits collection is released. [The import edition includes bonus tracks.]

An Awesome Wave

Alt-J

My Life

Mary J. Blige
Perhaps the single finest moment in Sean "Puffy" Combs' musical career has been the production on this, Mary J. Blige's second proper album. The production is not exactly original, and there is evidence here of him borrowing wholesale from other songs. The melodic sources this time around, though, are so expertly incorporated into the music that they never seem to be intrusions, instead playing like inspired dialogues with soulsters from the past, connecting past legacies with a new one. This certainly isn't your parents' (or grandparents') soul. But it is some of the finest modern soul of the '90s, backing away to a certain extent from the hip-hop/soul consolidation that Blige introduced on her debut album. The hip-hop part of the combination takes a few steps into the background, allowing Blige's tortured soul to carry the album completely, and it does so with heartwrenching authority. My Life is, from beginning to end, a brilliant, wistful individual plea of desire. Blige took a huge leap in artistry by penning almost everything herself (the major exception being Norman Whitfield's "I'm Going Down") in collaboration with co-producers Combs and multi-instrumentalist Chucky Thompson, and everything seems to leap directly from her gut. Blige's strain is sleekly modern and urban, and the grit in it comes from being streetwise and thoroughly realistic about the travails of life. My Life, nevertheless, emanates from some deep, dark place where both sadness and happiness cohabitate and turn into one single, beautiful sorrow.

Stanton Swihart, Rovi

Crack The Skye

Mastodon
First off, a warning: the best way to encounter Mastodon's Crack the Skye for the first time is with headphones. Reported to be a mystical -- if crunchy -- concept record about Tsarist Russia, this is actually the most involved set of tracks, both in terms of music and production, the band has ever recorded. "Ambitious" is a word that regularly greets Mastodon -- after all, they did an entire album based on Moby Dick -- but until now, that adjective may have been an understatement. There is so much going on in these seven tracks that it's difficult to get it all in a listen or two (one of the reasons that close encounters of the headphone kind are recommended). It may seem strange that the band worked with Bruce Springsteen producer Brendan O'Brien this time out, but it turns out to be a boon for both parties: for the band because O'Brien is obsessive about sounds, textures, and finding spaces in just the right places; for O'Brien because in his work with the Boss he's all but forgotten what the sounds of big roaring electric guitars and overdriven thudding drums can sound like. The guitar arrangements on tracks like "Divinations" and "The Czar," while wildly different from one another, are the most intricate, melodically complex things the band has ever recorded. There are also more subtle moments such as the menacing, brooding, and ultimately downer cuts such as "The Last Baron," where tempos are slowed and keyboards enter the fray and stretch the time, adding a much more multidimensional sense of atmosphere and texture. Still, Crack the Skye rocks, and hard! Its shifting tempos and key structures are far more meaty and forceful than most prog metal, and menace and cosmological speculation exist in equal measure, providing for a spot-on sense of balance. Some of the hardcore death metal conservatives may have trouble with this set, but the album wasn't recorded for them -- or anybody else. Crack the Skye is the sound of a band stretching itself to its limits and exploring the depth of its collective musical identity as a series of possibilities rather than as signatures. And yes, that "is" a good thing.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

The Con

Tegan And Sara
Although identical twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin first appeared in the music scene in the late '90s playing the kind of folk-rock and folk-punk more associated with other Lilith Fair (in which they participated) artists of the time, by the time 2007 rolled around they had moved into much poppier territory. It was a progression, to be sure, from This Business of Art to their fourth Vapor full-length -- one that can be heard in the time spent on production, the louder guitars -- but that still may not prepare listeners for The Con. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, the album is full of quirky, Aqueduct-like keyboards, punchy bass from Weezer's Matt Sharp and AFI's Hunter Burgan, and even some guitar help from Kaki King that stretch and shove their way into the spaces between Tegan and Sara's hook-driven melodies and clean harmonies, more complex than anything they've done before. Though each sister writes and sings lead on seven tracks, it is Sara especially who writes the more intricate pieces ("Relief Next to Me," "Like O, Like H"), showing a more adult songwriter, one who has matured since her first work came out, while Tegan draws more from simpler emo and pop-punk arrangements ("Nineteen," "Hop a Plane"), her songs more straightforward, both compositionally and lyrically, than her sister's. But this isn't to say that there's a kind of disparity or harsh contrast on The Con. Much like the duo's voices, which share a timbre, a clear relationship, even if their actual tonality differs, the songs on the album complement each other, play off the other's strengths, and make the record very much an entity instead of simply a collection of tracks, setting it off as an impressive step forward in their already commendable discography.

Marisa Brown, Rovi

Is This It

The Strokes
Blessed and cursed with an enormous amount of hype from the British press, the Strokes prove to be one of the few groups deserving of their glowing reviews. Granted, their high-fashion appeal and faultless influences -- Television, the Stooges, and especially Lou Reed and the Velvets -- have "critics' darlings" written all over them. But like the similarly lauded Elastica and Supergrass before them, the Strokes don't rehash the sounds that inspire them -- they remake them in their own image. On the Modern Age EP, singles like Hard to Explain, and their full-length debut, Is This It, the N.Y.C. group presents a pop-inflected, second-generation take on late-'70s New York punk, complete with raw, world-weary vocals, spiky guitars, and an insistently chugging backbeat. However, their songs also reflected their own early-twenties lust for life; singer/songwriter/guitarist Julian Casablancas and the rest of the band mix swaggering self-assurance with barely concealed insecurity on "The Modern Age" and reveal something akin to earnestness on "Barely Legal" -- a phrase that could apply to the Strokes themselves -- in the song's soaring choruses. The group revamps "Lust for Life" on "New York City Cops" and combines their raw power and infectious melodies on "Hard to Explain," arguably the finest song they've written in their career. Nearly half of Is This It consists of their previously released material, but that's not really a disappointment since those songs are so strong. What makes their debut impressive, however, is that the new material more than holds its own with the tried-and-true songs. "Is This It" sets the joys of being young, jaded, and yearning to a wonderfully bouncy bassline; "Alone Together" and "Trying Your Luck" develop the group's brooding, coming-down side, while "Soma," "Someday," and "Take It or Leave It" capture the Strokes at their most sneeringly exuberant. Able to make the timeworn themes of sex, drugs, and rock & roll and the basic guitars-drum-bass lineup seem new and vital again, the Strokes may or may not be completely arty and calculated, but that doesn't prevent Is This It from being an exciting, compulsively listenable debut. [In light of the World Trade Center disaster, the track "New York City Cops" was pulled from the U.S. release].

Heather Phares, Rovi

Heartthrob

Tegan And Sara
Having wooed the world with their post-punk indie-rock sound, Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara Quinn decided to embrace a lighter and more synth-driven sound for album number seven. They may still sing about heartbreak, frustration and disappointment in songs like 'How Come You Don't Want Me?' and 'Goobye, Goodbye,' but the duo's lyrics are now lit up with a fresh layer of optimism that's a fine fit for the sparkling electro-pop production. This change of mood imbues the album with a pleasing buoyancy which pairs well with the sisters' enduring knack of coining a catchy killer hook. Heartthrob is a successful new direction.

Rory Ford, Google Play

Holy Fire

Foals
Holy Fire is the third album from Oxford five-piece Foals, following 2010's Total Life Forever. Recorded in London and produced by duo Flood and Alan Moulder, Holy Fire includes the single "Inhaler," which builds from a tropical bounce into a thunderous, heavy chorus, typifying the experimental nature of the record., Rovi

Love Is A Four Letter Word

Jason Mraz

Strange Clouds

B.o.B
B.o.B's sophomore effort is missing that little bit of humility that made his debut (2010's The Adventures of Bobby Ray) so approachable, and when you come out of the gate nailing such a wide variety of pop-rap, asking for growth is asking for a lot. On this sophomore effort, B.o.B sounds like the same guy who delivered that debut and with the same set of skills (good lyrics, great pathos, and great punch lines) and aspirations (big across the board), just after numerous nights of bottle service, living in a platinum dream world where Dr. Luke and Lil Wayne contribute to your hazy highlight title track, and where mega-star Taylor Swift replaces Hayley Williams on the worthy "Airplanes" follow-up, "Both of Us." Later it's Nicki Minaj acting like a malfunctioning robot on the hip thrill ride called "Out of My Mind," followed by alt-rocker Ryan Tedder on the warm and cozy morning affirmation titled "Never Let You Go," but B.o.B isn't just influenced by the styles of his guests and is willing to bump a solo strip-club number ("Ray Bands") next to a solo soul-searcher ("So Hard to Breathe") as if albums were always executed like trapeze acts. Combine well funded and well crafted along with the rapper's "no frontin'" attitude -- sometimes he really wants to ease problems, and sometimes he really wants to be at a strip club -- and it starts to come together, plus when Morgan Freeman delivers that big, heavy-handed intro with barely a smirk, B.o.B's choice of audacious over ironic is refreshing. This is bold pop-rap at an "Arena" level, and while partying like a rock star means cohesiveness takes a hit, Strange Clouds is still thrilling and persuasive.

David Jeffries, Rovi

The Best Of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin
Yet another greatest hits collection. This is no better or worse than about six others available, so if you're not going to get the Rhino boxed set, this one will be as much service as any of the rest. The songs are well mastered.

Ron Wynn, Rovi

Ten

Pearl Jam
Nirvana's Nevermind may have been the album that broke grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, but there's no underestimating the role that Pearl Jam's Ten played in keeping them there. Nirvana's appeal may have been huge, but it wasn't universal; rock radio still viewed them as too raw and punky, and some hard rock fans dismissed them as weird misfits. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Pearl Jam clicked with a mass audience -- they weren't as metallic as Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, and of Seattle's Big Four, their sound owed the greatest debt to classic rock. With its intricately arranged guitar textures and expansive harmonic vocabulary, Ten especially recalled Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But those touchstones might not have been immediately apparent, since -- aside from Mike McCready's Clapton/Hendrix-style leads -- every trace of blues influence has been completely stripped from the band's sound. Though they rock hard, Pearl Jam is too anti-star to swagger, too self-aware to puncture the album's air of gravity. Pearl Jam tackles weighty topics -- abortion, homelessness, childhood traumas, gun violence, rigorous introspection -- with an earnest zeal unmatched since mid-'80s U2, whose anthemic sound they frequently strive for. Similarly, Eddie Vedder's impressionistic lyrics often make their greatest impact through the passionate commitment of his delivery rather than concrete meaning. His voice had a highly distinctive timbre that perfectly fit the album's warm, rich sound, and that's part of the key -- no matter how cathartic Ten's tersely titled songs got, they were never abrasive enough to affect the album's accessibility. Ten also benefited from a long gestation period, during which the band honed the material into this tightly focused form; the result is a flawlessly crafted hard rock masterpiece.

Steve Huey, Rovi

We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.

Jason Mraz

The Best Of Sade

Sade
It's easy to dismiss Sade as makeout music for Calvin Klein Obsession models, but she created an impressive body of work over the course of a decade, a series of moody singles with cool jazz passion and the kick of good R&B. All the hits are here, of course, from "Smooth Operator" to "No Ordinary Love."

Eddie Huffman, Rovi

Chapter V

Trey Songz

Little Broken Hearts

Norah Jones
A string of increasingly sophisticated records framed Norah Jones among the most confident, broadly appealing artists of her generation. Still, it took a nasty breakup, a new band and Danger Mouse to create her most compelling release since Come Away With Me. Black-hearted tunes like "She's 22," "Happy Pills" and "Miriam" make Little Broken Hearts an unapologetic kiss-off boiling with hot-blooded attitude (lines like "I'm gonna smile when I take your life" might even invite a restraining order). But gauzy synthesizers and the foggy atmosphere of Danger Mouse's production are perfect counterweights, and breathy seduction songs like "Good Morning" are in her unmistakable style. So disregard the dagger in her hand, this is Jones' second record that demands our full attention.

- Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Various Artists
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 marks the finale of the epic vampire series and its soundtrack befittingly bleeds with moody romance and melancholy. Twilight consistently assembles strong soundtracks, and here, Twi-hards say goodbye to Bella and Edward to the tune of new tracks from Green Day ("The Forgotten"), Feist ("Fire in the Water") and Passion Pit, who open with wistful anthem "Where I Come From." Ellie Goulding's aptly-titled "Bittersweet," produced by her on-again/off-again boyfriend Skrillex, is a whimsical electropop dance track which warns: "You always want what you're running from." The follow-up from her Part 1 tearjerker, Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years (Part 2)" declares eternal love, while Reeve Carney's "New for You" trembles with devotion.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Tidal

Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple demonstrates considerable talent on her debut album, Tidal, but it is unformed, unfocused talent. Her voice is surprisingly rich and supple for a teenager, and her jazzy, sophisticated piano playing also belies her age. Given the right material, such talents could have flourished, but she has concentrated on her own compositions, which are nowhere near as impressive as her musicianship. Most of Tidal is comprised of confessional singer/songwriter material, and while they strive to say something deep and important, much of the lyrics settle for clichés. Apple does have a handful of impressive songs on Tidal, like the haunting "Shadowboxer" and "Sullen Girl," but the gap between her performing talents and songwriting skills is too large to make the album anything more than a promising, and very intriguing, debut.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best Of Aerosmith

Aerosmith
Those who do not pay much attention to record company affiliations should be warned that this discount-priced album, billed as the "best of Aerosmith," represents only their most popular recordings made for Geffen Records between 1987 and 1994. That said, it represents them well, including all 11 of Aerosmith's Top 40 hits from the period ("Angel," "Janie's Got a Gun," "Love in an Elevator," etc.), plus the track "Deuces Are Wild" from the album The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience. This, of course, was the period when the bandmembers were collaborating with such songwriting hacks as Desmond Child, Holly Knight, and Jim Vallance to considerable commercial effect, maintaining the comeback they had launched with Run-D.M.C.'s remake of "Walk This Way." Those who do not pay much attention to sonic trends in the record industry should be warned that while the album was "96k/24-bit mastered from the original master tapes by Erick Labson," Labson's mastering approach responds to the tendency toward preparing music for its compression into MP3 files for digital downloading more than for old-fashioned CD audiophile listening; Labson has adopted a "push up all the faders" sound that is overly loud and poorly detailed; the late Bruce Fairbairn, original producer of these recordings, must be turning over in his grave.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Skelethon [Deluxe Version]

Aesop Rock
Like anyone, artists go through dark times, times when everything seems against you, which for Aesop Rock meant the death of a friend, the end of a marriage, and his longtime label, Def Jux, going "on hiatus" while label boss El-P figured things out. That's three fastball strikes and one underground abstract rapper spending five years in the dugout feeling alone, depressed, and betrayed by his own karma, but Aesop is no ordinary hip-hopper, and Skelethon is no ordinary recovery album. Lead single "Zero Dark Thirty" is all the unexpected dark chaos of life told in stream of consciousness, and then balled into a nutshell, seeking medicine and then escaping your ills hobo style ("Lanacane, band aids, mandrake root/Bindle on a broomstick, pancaked makeup and shoes") while watching the new underground party from afar ("Choke-lore writers over boosted drums") as the Def Jux posse stalls and/or waits ("In the terrifying face of a future tongue/Down from a huntable surplus to one"), or something like that. It's hard to nail because Rock's love-him-or-just-don't-get-him style is William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique with some slang added along with plenty of karate chops, so everything is open to interpretation, or it's grating and smugly obscure when approached by detractors. Still, this hard nut to crack has never been more attractive than on "ZZZ Top," a weird slice of nostalgia that looks back at three ghost kid rebels who carved their respective "Z" antiheroes in a wood desk, one scrawling "ZoSo" for Led Zeppelin, one carving "Zulu" for Afrika Bambaataa, and one carving "Zeros" for some long-lost punk rock. Referencing a fourth, Texan set of rebels in the title makes it all the more fun to decipher. As other problems are solved in these lyrical thrill rides with Aesop's chaotic, drum-driven production underneath -- along with more hooks than usual and some odd, awesome guest shots from Rob Sonic and Kimya Dawson shaking things up -- the overall message seems to be that we've all felt this isolated, off, and alone in our own ways, and you can add a little "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" to boot. Aesop sounds stronger and sure after taking this journey, making Skelethon his most rewarding effort to date.

Anything In Return

Toro Y Moi
Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick isn’t the kind of guy who likes to repeat himself from release to release. His debut album, Causers of This, was murky, subtle chillwave, the follow-up, Underneath the Pine, was a much brighter affair that sounded equal parts space age bachelor pad music (à la Stereolab) and late-night disco. He followed that up with Freaking Out, a bubbling, funky EP, and then 2013’s Anything in Return, where he mostly casts aside the guitars that populated Underneath the Pine and sticks closer to a sleek and subdued Chill&B sound that sounds like a sadder version of Freaking Out. All the songs are dipped in shimmering layers of synths with the uptempo tracks underpinned by gently bouncing drums, the ballads with stuttering beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Miguel album. Though the arrangements are the most complex and carefully built he’s done yet, Bundick’s vocals are more out front than ever and filled with a newfound high level of passion that gives each song a strong emotional heartbeat. Despite the occasional diversion like the super sweet love song “Cake” or the percolating “Studies,” the album is a quietly melancholy late-night experience that unspools slowly and smoothly like a brilliant quiet storm mix tape. The first time through the album, it almost seems too quiet and too smooth, but repeated listens reveal the album’s strength and power. It’s almost a daring step for Bundick to take, as expanding his sound by making it brighter and simpler may have led to some mainstream success. Instead, his retreat into more complex and restrained sounds makes for a richer and more rewarding listening experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t any tracks that stand out and sound like singles; “Say That” has insistent rhythms and chopped up vocal samples that are sharply hooky, “Never Matter” has an almost Prince-ly strut that is infectious, and “Rose Quartz” is a softly pretty R&B ballad with some great falsetto. Bundick’s genius on Anything in Return is that he blends these poppy moments into the overall fabric of the album and the whole thing holds together in a tightly wound, perfectly constructed ball of sound and songcraft. It may not be the most immediately exciting album of his career, but it is the most impressive and affecting.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Attack On Memory

Cloud Nothings
Despite the kill-the-past title Attack on Memory, Cloud Nothings' second album conjures up the ghosts of bands such as Nirvana, Unwound, and Fugazi -- acts whose heydays occurred when Dylan Baldi was a tyke, and all of them far heavier than his previous work. In that sense, Attack on Memory is a break with Cloud Nothings' past, and one they're not shy about advertising; the album's first two songs are so different than what came before, they're almost unrecognizable. "No Future/No Past" builds from a hypnotic dirge into scorched-earth screaming that echoes In Utero's bleakest moments, while "Wasted Days"' nearly nine-minute excursion into self-loathing and band interplay is an even bigger departure. That Cloud Nothings pull off such big changes so well can be chalked up partly to Baldi's evolution as a songwriter, but also to the fact that this is the first album his live band has played on with him (and Steve Albini's production gives added impact to their blows). With this extra firepower, Baldi dives headlong into songs that capture those moments when ripping it up and starting again is the only choice, whether it's the caustic "No Sentiment" or "Our Plans"' more tuneful desperation. As strong as Attack on Memory's forays into heavier territory are, Cloud Nothings still sound more natural, and more versatile, when they serve up the fuzzed-out pop Baldi developed on his singles and first album. He sounds downright innocent on "Stay Useless"' pleas for breathing room, and anything but on "Cut You," where a singsong melody only slightly sweetens the curdled jealousy of lyrics like "Can he be as mean as me?/Can he cut you in your sleep?" At some point, it might do Cloud Nothings good to take stock of just how far they've come with every release, but Attack on Memory is another fine snapshot of a band that is growing and playing as fast as it can.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Top Ten Hits Of The End Of The World

Prince Rama
On 2011's Trust Now, Prince Rama honed itself down to the duo of Taraka and Nimai Larson with engineer and sometime-guitarist Scott Colburn. The end result was a witchy, neo-gothic, psychedelic dance music full of tripped-out jams and quasi-mystical kookiness that worked its loopy magic from beginning to end. On Top Ten Hits of the End of the World, the Larsons try to tighten it up and make it conceptual: PR claim to cover the "pop hits" of ten imaginary bands that died during the apocalypse via channeling them. (The paper booklet even has the scent of basement mold to add to to the vibe.) The fake band names are amusing: the Guns of Dubai, Rage Peace, Taohaus, Hyparxia, etc. The "songs" on Top Ten Hits aspire to a peyote-induced vision that melds Bananarama, latter-year Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Hayzee Fantayzee, with a little Kajagoogoo and late Zodiac Mindwarp thrown in for kicks. Prince Rama already own a sprawling musical language: a Brooklyn-baked, acid-drenched "jam band" style that eschews the predominance of traditional guitar- and drum-based aesthetics in favor of tribal digi-drums, layers of Casio presets, orgiastic roto-toms, analog synths, and enough reverb and digital delay to disorient a monk in deep meditation. The jittery, "So Destroyed," with its multivalent drum loops, organ vamps, and memorable chanted melody is a contender. Likewise their attempt at Bollywood on "Radhamadhava," contains a certain naive charm.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Velvet Changes

Dog Bite
On Dog Bite's debut album Velvet Changes, Phil Jones offers his own take on the atmospheric pop terrain he helped Washed Out explore. However, Jones doesn't rehash that outfit's chillwave-defining sound; Velvet Changes is straight-up dream pop. Dog Bite may not be quite as shoegazingly nostalgic as some of Jones' contemporaries, but he's partial to spacy synth washes, languid guitars, and breathy vocals longing for something that once was (or could never be). The album serves as another reminder of how much bigger dream pop came to be in the late 2000s and 2010s than it was when it began in the late '80s. While this style has been heard before, and for quite some time, Velvet Changes doesn't feel generic or boring so much as representative; someone listening to it years after its release would get a good idea of what a lot of music from this era sounded like. Jones understands the style in which he's working quite well, and at first, the album feels tasteful almost to a fault, leading off with a trio of unfailingly pretty songs including the sweetly fuzzed-out "Super Soaker." As Velvet Changes progresses, Jones throws some curves into his approach: the moody "Prettiest Pills" boasts a synth freak-out that adds some, well, bite to the proceedings, and "You're Not That Great" pits a jumpy, vaguely dance-tinged beat against some murky guitars. Toward the end of the album, things get a little too unstructured, with songs such as "Paper Lungs" losing impact due to their formlessness. Even if not everything on Velvet Changes works, it shows that Jones can do pure pop as well as experiments -- or a mix of both, as on "Holiday Man" -- and the album ends up being more promising than uneven.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Antipodes

Popstrangers
On Antipodes, New Zealand's Popstrangers deliver a more muscular and nuanced version of the mix of melody, noise, and rock that they've brandished since their early singles on their homeland's venerated Flying Nun label. While there are still hints of that imprint's brashly jangly sound, Popstrangers owe more to the Pixies' loud-quiet-loud dynamics, Nirvana's outbursts, and the intricately tangled guitars of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Sonic Youth. Even these influences are more echoes than obvious signposts, and like their Carpark brethren Cloud Nothings, Popstrangers carve out their own territory within this sonic realm. However, Popstrangers' love triangle with noise and melody feels more balanced, and more effortless: when the fuzzed-out minor-key riffing on "Jane" gives way to Joel Flyger's singsong vocals, it's more attention-getting and satisfying than a more predictable hook might be. Likewise, the addictive tension between deceptively simple melodies and jagged dynamics on "Witches Hand" and "Heaven" shows that Popstrangers aren't as unfamiliar with how to make catchy songs as their name suggests. At times, the band kicks up nearly as much dust as it did on 2010's Happy Accidents EP, but the onslaughts are tempered by a moodier vibe on tracks like "What Else Could They Do" and "In Some Ways," where the volume only makes Flyger's ruminations even more brooding. While it's hard to fathom that a band this dedicated to noise could also be subtle, Popstrangers pull off that feat time and again, particularly on "Cat's Eyes" and "404." Darker and more mature than any of the band's previous music, Antipodes sacrifices some of the quirky charm of Popstrangers' earliest work and Happy Accidents' firepower for a strong debut album.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Grace/Confusion

Memory Tapes
Memory Tapes is one of the most relevant acts in chillwave, but soloist Dayve Hawk attempted to break barriers and get adventurous with his third album, Grace/Confusion. Here, Hawk expands on the usual dreamy, '80s-referencing sounds of the genre -- washy synthesizers, crystalline vocals, and lo-fi drum machine beats -- and goes to great lengths to avoid snappy synth pop structures. Instead, he takes a winding, prog rock approach to his pieces. As a result, most songs on the sprawling 39-minute album are two or three times longer than usual. Hawk explained in a press release that he was in a mixed-up place while recording, expressing doubts with the new direction of his project by promising a return to form on his next release. This feeling of confliction embodies the album. Select copies of 2009's Seek Magic demonstrated just how far Memory Tapes could stretch when given free rein with a 22-minute bonus track, and the schizophrenic Grace/Confusion shows signs that Hawk might rather be spreading his wings and making something completely bizarre like Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (these moments would fall into the confusion category), but he can't quite let go of the sparkling, somewhat sterile style (or grace) that comprised the second album. "Sheila" shape-shifts from a silky Rhodes ballad along the lines of Alan Parsons Project into a modern dance groove. But, just when you think you have it pegged, a ripping buzzsaw keyboard solo is introduced, and the textures evolve into a third part. And so on. This ongoing motion keeps things interesting -- and, cleverly, because no tracks break tempo, from a distance it all seems natural and unforced.

Jason Lymangrover, Rovi

June 2009

Toro y Moi
Chaz Bundick began making recordings under the name Toro y Moi in 2001, but he only began to make some noise in 2009 when a flood of releases sparked a lot of interest in the chilly pop sounds he was creating. That year he put out two singles (including the much-hyped -- for good reason -- "Blessa"), an EP, a self-released full-length album (My Touch), and a tour-only collection of songs called June 2009. This June 2009 is a revamped version of that collection; nine of the ten songs here appeared on the original CD-R. Anyone who discovered Toro y Moi after 2009 may be surprised at how direct and indie rock-derived a big chunk of the album is, as many of the songs are guitar-based gems that show the influence of Pavement or My Bloody Valentine. There is plenty of reverb and the fidelity is reassuringly low, so it's not a million miles away from later Toro records. A few songs sound like chillwave warmups for Causers of This, the early, looser version of "Talamak" in particular. There's even a track ("Drive South") that nods to the squiggly electro-funk of 2011's Freaking Out EP. There may not be anything particularly revelatory about June 2009, but it's a nice batch of tunes and anyone who's new to Bundick's work will appreciate this glimpse into the early days.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of Tears For Fears

Tears For Fears
The Millennium Collection: The Best of Tears for Fears mixes their biggest hits, including "Shout," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Head Over Heels," and "Mothers Talk," with a sprinkling of rarities like the B-side "Pharoahs" and single versions of "Change" and "Advice for the Young at Heart." "Sowing the Seeds of Love," "Woman in Chains," and "Break It Down Again" complete this concise but worthwhile look at Tears for Fears' diverse, ambitious pop sound.

Heather Phares, Rovi

When It Was Now

Atlas Genius
Atlas Genius first came to attention with "Trojans," and it's easy to hear why this song -- which the band recorded in their own studio -- became a hit: it's glossy but earnest, pairing a familiar-sounding melody with subtly changing guitars and keyboards that weave in and out between Keith Jeffery's vocals. "Trojans" is also the best song on Atlas Genius' full-length debut When It Was Now, largely because its songwriting is so direct and intimate. That strength sets them apart from many of their contemporaries, who helped make the mix of chugging guitars and sparkling synths nigh-on ubiquitous by the time When It Was Now arrived. At times, the band's fondness for keyboards suggests a more macho Phoenix or a less arty Gotye, but the anthemic, heartfelt thrust to songs such as "If So" and the title track puts them closer to Kings of Leon or even the Killers (minus the fanciful tangents that band takes). There might even be some arena rock deep in their music's DNA; the chorus on the prior single "Through the Glass" could easily fill a stadium. While Atlas Genius throw in a few musical twists here and there, like the bubbly synth intro to "On a Day," their focus is on getting their songs across in the biggest way possible. When the writing doesn't match the standard set by the strongest songs, the album lags a little, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether Atlas Genius is a stylish band with a heartfelt undercurrent or a straightforward one gussied up with fashionable sonics. Either way, When It Was Now is a solid debut that proves "Trojans" wasn't a fluke.

Heather Phares, Rovi

+

Ed Sheeran
+ is the debut studio album by English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, released on 9 September 2011 by Asylum Records and Atlantic Records. The album marks Sheeran's commercial breakthrough, having previously released five EPs independently. Jake Gosling produced the majority of the album, with additional production by American hip hop producer No I.D.. Upon release, + debuted atop of the UK Albums Chart with first-week sales exceeding 102,000 copies The album performed well on the US Billboard 200, peaking at number 5, selling 42,000 copies. The album is the highest debut for a British artist's first studio album in the US since Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream.
Media interest surrounding + was fuelled significantly by its two preceding singles—"The A Team" and "You Need Me, I Don't Need You"—which peaked at number one and number four on the UK Singles Chart respectively. "Lego House" was released on 11 November 2011 as the album's third single and emulated the chart success of its predecessors, peaking at number five in the UK. Three further singles were released throughout the year; "Drunk", "Small Bump" and "Give Me Love", all of which charted within the top 25 of the UK Singles Chart. It was met with generally mixed reviews from music critics.

~ Provided by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%2B_(album)) under Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)

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.]

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best Of The Commodores

The Commodores
The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Commodores collects 11 of their Motown hits, including their first hit, the instrumental "Machine Gun," as well as classics like "Brick House," "Three Times a Lady," "Easy," and "Nightshift." A concise journey through the group's brand of Southern funk and romantic ballads.

Heather Phares, Rovi