End Of Summer Discount

Fearless

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift abandons any pretense that she's a teen on her second album, Fearless -- which isn't to say that she suddenly tarts herself up, running away from her youth in a manner that's all too familiar to many teen stars. Swift's maturation is deliberate and careful, styled after the crossover country-pop of Shania Twain and Faith Hill before they turned into divas. Despite the success of her self-titled 2006 debut, there's nothing at all diva-like about Swift on 2008's Fearless: she's soft-spoken and considerate, a big sister instead of a big star. Nowhere is this truer than on "Fifteen," a kind warning for a teen to watch her heart sung from the perspective of a woman who's perhaps twice that age -- a sly trick for the 18-year-old Swift. There may be a hint of youthfulness to her singing but that's the only hint of girlishness here; her writing -- and she had a hand in penning all 13 tracks here, with six of them bearing her solitary credit -- is sharply, subtly crafted and the music is softly assured, never pushing its hooks too hard and settling into a warm bed of guitars and keyboards. Like many country-pop albums of the 2000s, the pop heavily outweighs the country -- there aren't fiddles here, there are violins -- yet Fearless never feels garish, a crass attempt at a crossover success. It's small-scale and sweetly tuneful, always seeming humble even when the power ballads build to a big close. Swift's gentle touch is as enduring as her songcraft, and this musical maturity may not quite jibe with her age but it does help make Fearless one of the best mainstream pop albums of 2008. [The 2009 edition included bonus tracks.]

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

Night Visions

Imagine Dragons
Even though Night Visions has several repackaged tunes from Imagine Dragons' previous EPs, including the instantly appealing breakthrough hit "It's Time," the band's debut LP is a confident, commercially savvy collection of energetic hooks, crunchy electro beats and glossy synthesizers. With sweeping choruses and booming bass, it's big-sounding party rock, but the savvy, kitchen-sink production of Alex da Kid makes other would-be singles like "Bleeding Out" and "Tiptoe" as interesting as they are overwhelming. Even though under all the layers there are occasionally pockets of pure cheese ("With the beast inside, there's nowhere we can hide," Dan Reynolds sings on "Demons"), the scope of the band's full-length debut leaves a big impression.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

The Heist

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
When Macklemore declares his music is "David Bowie meets Kanye sh*t," it's a bit of an oversell on the Bowie side, but then again, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are also honored as influences during "Ten Thousand Hours," the biographical highlight that opens the Seattle rapper's vibrant sophomore release. These arty name-drops threaten to paint the album as more obscure than it is, but even as glitch electronica and Mad Rad member Buffalo Madonna strange up the breakup number "Thin Line," The Heist comes off as instant, alive, and oh so welcoming. Chalk it up to Macklemore's playful and open lyrics ("When I was in the third grade/I thought I was gay/Because I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight") or the album's not so secret weapon, Ryan Lewis, the producer who earns his co-billing with a George Martin or Dave Fridmann-sized sense of purpose and an Internet kid's sense of utilizing anything and/or everything. For the music industry takeover "Jimmy Iovine" with Ab-Soul as guest, Lewis' production is a mix of G-Unit gangster music and a Houston hip-hop trunk rumbler, while the pro-gay marriage highlight "Same Love" with Mary Lambert is supported by full-bodied piano and the sound of a bittersweet marching band, all of it familiar yet twisted through a laptop with hypnotic loops and catchy hooks coming out. "Gold" (feeling like "500,000 sold") is joyous and bright mini-electro that feeds the positive side of the soul, while "Can't Hold Us" comes with an irresistible bounce, both tracks being light, lovely, and in contrast to the numbers that deal with Macklemore's addiction issues and other obstacles. These two talented young bucks can't be contained, and hearing them offer one memorable, meaty number after another makes for an exciting listen, but this is unfiltered freshness released on Macklemore's own label, so the concepts of restraint and focus take a slight hit, leaving the is-he-Eminem, is-he-Childish Gambino, or is-he-Grieves question with no clear winner. Here, he's a mix of all of the above with some distinctive qualities, and with Lewis putting that kaleidoscope style underneath, The Heist winds up a rich combination of fresh and familiar.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Same Trailer Different Park

Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves could easily be contemporary country's next big thing. She's a sharp, detailed songwriter with a little bit of an edge, and while it's tempting to think of her as another coming of Taylor Swift, say, she's got the kind of relaxed sureness about what she's doing as a songwriter and performer that puts her closer to a Miranda Lambert. On her first nationally distributed album, Same Trailer Different Park, she definitely sounds more on the Lambert side of things, with a sparse, airy sound that lets her lyrics shine, and she'd as soon use a banjo in her arrangements as a snarling Stratocaster. From her debut single, the marvelous "Merry Go 'Round" (which is included here as the third track), Musgraves showed an intelligent, careful writing style that is as pointed as it is poignant, and even though the song seems to skewer small-town country life, it does it without malice or agenda, and is really more just telling it true than anything else, a trait that ought to be treasured in Nashville but usually isn't. Nashville wants one to tell it true as long as that telling conforms to the template, which Musgraves isn't likely to do. "Merry Go 'Round" might be the best song here, but there are others that are nearly as good, like the lilting, wise opener, "Silver Lining," the implausible "Dandelion" (one wonders how she manages to make such a winning song out of such a metaphor, but she does), and the gutsy (and again, wise) "Follow Your Arrow," all of which feature clear-eyed observations, unintrusive but appropriate arrangements, and a certain flair for telling it like it is and making it sound like bedrock, obvious wisdom. Musgraves has a sense of humor, too, and all of these traits add up to make Same Trailer Different Park more than a collection of songs just aiming for the country charts.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

I Am Not A Human Being II

Lil Wayne

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.

Stars Dance

Selena Gomez

Blurred Lines

Robin Thicke

18 Months

Calvin Harris
You've been listening to Calvin Harris for months now, whether you know it or not. The Scottish producer is the golden child behind such huge pop hits as Rihanna's "We Found Love" and Ne-Yo's "Let's Go." These tracks aren't even the standouts on Harris' third solo album, 18 Months, which spills over with big-name collaborations and singles that have been tearing up the clubs for the last few years. Songbirds Florence Welch, Ellie Goulding and Ayah Marar soar over Harris' sparkling electronic melodies, while British rappers Example, Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah get drunk on his 100-proof kick drums and heavyweight drops. Kelis hops around a neon Nintendo dancefloor on "Bounce," while Harris himself vocally swaggers over the wistful rave rager "Feel So Close." Top this off with a few instrumental tracks that show off Harris' electro-house roots ("Mansion," "School") and 18 Months adds up to one of the most cohesive and listenable dance-pop records of the year.

good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick Lamar
Hip-hop debuts don't come much more "highly anticipated" than Kendrick Lamar's. A series of killer mixtapes displayed his talent for thought-provoking street lyrics delivered with an attention-grabbing flow, and then there was his membership in the Black Hippy crew with his brethren Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock all issuing solo releases that pleased the "true hip-hop" set, setting the stage for a massive fourth and final. Top it off with a pre-release "XXL Magazine" cover that he shared with his label boss and all-around legend Dr. Dre, and the "biggest debut since Illmatic" stuff starts to flow, but Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City would be a milestone even without the back-story, offering cool and compelling lyrics, great guests (Drake, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht) and attractive production (from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Tabu, and others). Here, Kendrick is living his life like status and cash were extra credit. It is what makes this kid so "good" as he navigates his "mad" city (Compton) with experience and wisdom beyond his years (25). He's shamelessly bold about the allure of the trap, contrasting the sickness of his city with the universal feeling of getting homesick, and carrying a Springsteen-sized love for the home team. Course, in his gang-ruled city, N.W.A. "was" the home team, but as the truly beautiful, steeped-in-soul, biographic key track "The Art of Peer Pressure" finds a reluctant young Kendrick and his friends feeding off the life-force of Young Jeezy's debut album, it's something Clash, Public Enemy, and all other rebel music fans can relate to. Still, when he realizes that hero Jeezy must have risen above the game -- because the real playas are damned and never show their faces -- it spawns a kind of elevated gangsta rap that's as pimp-connectable as the most vicious Eazy-E, and yet poignant enough to blow the dust off any cracked soul. Equally heavy is the cautionary tale of drank dubbed "Swimming Pools," yet that highlight is as hooky and hallucinatory as most Houston drank anthems, and breaks off into one of the chilling, cassette-quality interludes that connect the album, adding to the documentary or eavesdropping quality of it all. Soul children will experience déjà vu when "Poetic Justice" slides by with its Janet Jackson sample -- sounding like it came off his Aunt's VHS copy of the movie it's named after -- while the closing "Compton" is an anthem sure to make the Game jealous, featuring Dre in beast mode, acting pre-Chronic and pre-Death Row. This journey through the concrete jungle of Compton is worth taking because of the artistic richness within, plus the attraction of a whip-smart rapper flying high during his rookie season. Any hesitation about the horror of it all is quickly wiped away by Kendrick's mix of true talk, open heart, open mind, and extended hand. Add it all up and even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.

Paradise

Lana Del Rey
Even after selling nearly three million copies of her debut album worldwide, Lana Del Rey still faced a challenge during 2012: namely, proving to critics and prospective fans that Born to Die wasn't a fluke. In that spirit, Del Ray released Paradise, a mini-album close to Christmas, that finds her in perfect control of her voice, much more assured than she was even one year ago, and frequently capable of astonishing her listeners with a very convincing act. As for the sound, it should be familiar to fans of Born to Die, with strings that move at a glacial pace, drums that crash like waves in slow motion, and additional textures (usually electric guitar or piano) that are cinematic in their sound and references. There's really only one difference between Born to Die and Paradise, but it's a big one. Instead of acting the submitting, softcore, '60s-era plaything, here she's more of a wasted, hardcore, post-millennial plaything. She even goes so far as to tell her audience that she likes it rough (in words that earn the parental advisory sticker), to ask whether she can put on a show, and at her most explicit, proffering a simile that compares the taste of an intimate part of her anatomy to Pepsi. The inclusion of a cover, "Blue Velvet," is not only a perfect match for her style, but also a hint that she can perform up to better material. Still, all of this is merely the material for her continuing popularity and attraction. She puts it better here than anyone else, with another simile: "Like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer, life imitates art."

John Bush, Rovi

Teenage Dream

Katy Perry
All Katy Perry wants is the spotlight, and she’ll follow the path of others to get there, raising eyebrows à la Alanis, strutting like Gwen Stefani, and relying on Britney’s hitmaker Max Martin for her hooks. She never breaks away from the expected lite club beats that transition from day to night without a hitch or the chilly, stainless steel ballads designed to lose none of their luster on repeat plays. Perry acknowledges some trends -- she salutes KeSha on “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” replicates Ryan Tedder’s glassy robotic alienation on “E.T.,” but tellingly avoids ripping off Lady Gaga. Perry is at her best when she’s delivering sleek singles like “Teenage Dream” and “Hummingbird Heartbeat” with efficiency.

Save Rock And Roll

Fall Out Boy
Early on in Save Rock and Roll, Patrick Stump sings he'll change you like a remix then raise you like a phoenix, words written, as always, by Pete Wentz, and sentiments that place this 2013 Fall Out Boy comeback in some kind of perspective. After the absurdly ambitious 2008 LP Folie à Deux, the band expanded and imploded, winding up in a pseudo-retirement where Stump released an inspired but confused solo record while Wentz pursued Black Cards, a band that went nowhere. Failure has a way of reuniting wayward souls, and so Stump, Wentz, Joe Trohman, and Andy Hurley all settled their differences and cut Save Rock and Roll, an album that acts like Fall Out Boy never went away while simultaneously acknowledging every trend of the last five years. Alone among their peers, Fall Out Boy are always acutely conscious of what's on the charts, not limiting themselves to the brickwalled blast of modern rock but also dipping into the crystalline shimmer of R&B and even sending up the folk stomp of Mumford & Sons on "Young Volcanoes." One of great things about Fall Out Boy -- the thing that's infuriating and intoxicating in equal measure -- is that it's difficult to discern where their sincerity ends and their parody begins. That's particularly true of Save Rock and Roll, where the group is negotiating its rapidly approaching maturity along with the fashions of the time. They're not entirely successful, partially because they rely on their trusty emo onslaught of unmodulated chords and emotions, partially because there still is a lingering suspicion that they may not truly believe anything they sing. Nevertheless, they're ambitious, admirable, and sometimes thrilling, particularly because the group never fears to tread into treacherous waters, happy to blur the distinctions between pop and rock, mainstream and underground. They bring in Courtney Love to snarl like it's 1993, they have Elton John act like the grand dame he is, but neither overshadows the group's intoxicatingly smeary stance on what rock & roll is. They're not traditionalists -- they're not about three chords and the truth, they're about misdirection and hiding their emotions, then letting it all spill out in one headstrong rush. In 2013, when so many bands are donning tweed caps and pining for a past that never existed, it's kind of fun to have a band tackle the modern world in all its mess as Fall Out Boy do here.

Believe Acoustic

Justin Bieber
Like My Worlds Acoustic before it, Believe Acoustic maintains the flow of Bieber product following a proper studio album. It features eight acoustic versions of songs from Believe and three new songs. Studio musicians do most of the instrumental work, but Bieber is credited with some guitar on a couple tracks. The material that required little transformation -- direct and serious love songs such as "As Long as You Love Me" and "Be Alright" -- fares best. There's some appeal in the new songs: the destined-to-be-a-fan-favorite "Yellow Raincoat," the adequate "I Would" (which is not acoustic), and the sad post-breakup piano ballad "Nothing Like Us," the last of which was written by Bieber alone and seems quite personal.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Caught In The Act: Live

Eric Church
As he preps his fourth album, Eric Church pays tribute to the time-honored tradition of releasing a live album while the iron is hot. And so there's Caught in the Act: Live, a 17-track set recorded at the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, Tennessee as he supported his career-making 2011 record Chief. In concert, Church is brawnier than he is in the studio -- witness "Creepin," where such subtle production tricks as backward guitars are stripped away so it just barrels by on drums and guitars -- but this isn't a bad thing, as macho swagger is integral to his appeal. He makes no bones about his debt to Waylon or allegiance to Hag but Church knows this isn't the '70s, and he cranks up the amplifiers so they fill an arena and let his rhythms hit hard, so much so that when "Smoke a Little Smoke" ends with a quotation from Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf," it doesn't feel out of place. Curiously, Caught in the Act concludes with Church's sweetest moments -- "These Boots" and "Springsteen" -- which means apart from the brief respite of "Sinners Like Me," this is as intense and heavy a country concert album as has ever been released. It may not convey some of the subtleties and shading of Church's music, but this is an easy way to mainline the neo-outlaw singer at his hardest.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Speak Now

Taylor Swift
When Kanye West bum-rushed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, the world rallied around Swift not because Kanye was a “jackass,” as President Obama so succinctly summarized, but because the singer/songwriter conveyed the fragility of adolescence on her 2008 breakthrough, Fearless, so successfully that she inspired instinctive protectiveness even among those who never spent much time with the record. Not timid or a tart, Swift seemed like a genuine girl on Fearless, perhaps treating her songs a little too much like diaries, but that only made them more affecting. If anything, Swift ramps up the confessions on her 2010 sequel, Speak Now, but circumstances have changed: few listeners, if any, would have a clue about the identity of the boy who belongs with Taylor, but now that she’s a superstar, anybody with a passing familiarity with pop culture can discern which songs are about Kanye, Taylor Lautner (her ex), or Camilla Belle (the actress girl who stole Joe Jonas out from under our heroine). Not that Swift takes great pains to disguise who she’s writing about -- not when she’s writing “Dear John,” an elegant evisceration of lecherous lothario John Mayer. Such gossip mongering is titillating but fleeting, suggesting that the charms of Speak Now are insubstantial, but Swift’s gift is that she sets the troubled mind of an awkward age in stone. She writes from the perspective of the moment yet has the skill of a songwriter beyond her years, articulating contradictions and confessions with keen detail and strong melody. Tellingly, underneath all her girlishness -- and Taylor makes no apologies for being girly as she baits mean girls, dreamily thinks of stolen kisses on a sidewalk, or fantasizes about stealing away her ex-lover at the altar -- there’s a steely strength. She walks away proudly from breakups and never dwells on mistakes; she moves forward. The same could be said about the sound of Speak Now itself, which is no great progression from Fearless but rather a subtle shift toward pure pop with the country accents, such as the Dixie Chicks foundation of “Mean,” used as flavoring. But that blend of pop and country, while certainly radio-friendly, is nearly as distinctive to Taylor Swift as her songwriting voice. She may be not a girl, and not yet a woman, but on Speak Now she captures that transition with a personal grace and skill that few singer/songwriters have.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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

Indicud

Kid Cudi
After an amicable split with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label, Kid Cudi's third official album landed on Island proper, but it comes off as a label sampler itself, perhaps for the mythical Indicud Records (and that's the marijuana type Indica mixed with the name Cudi) or Kid Enterprises where the Cleveland rapper executive produces it all. Prime example has to be late album highlight "Beez," where Wu-Tang leader RZA brings his own Killer Bees mythos and delivers what could be his anthem ("I don't write songs, Grasshopper/I write sceneries") while Cudi handles the production and delivers the simple hook. In "Girls," it's merely a matter of framing veteran pimp Too Short in Cudi's bud smoker's vision of alt-rap, while "Solo Dolo, Pt. 2" takes the Kid's theme song and allows Kendrick Lamar to run with it, all the way to the Left Coast. Elsewhere, there's the delicious idea of surrounding AOR singer Michael Bolton with cloud rap and EDM beats for the epic "Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends)," or making indie rockers Haim sound something more like the Weeknd on stoner-R&B cut "Red Eye," and then there's the small instrumental/lark called "New York City Rage Fest," which is nothing more than middle-album tomfoolery. All those guest shots are worthy bangers, but Indicud still has some truly Solo Dolo numbers that shine, with "Immortal" turning a MGMT tune played backwards into Cudi's best anthem to date, while "Unfuckwittable" is the off-kilter, brain-melting mutant brand of pop-rap that made the Man on the Moon albums such a thrill. Cudi's said that Indicud is his 2001, in reference to the Dr. Dre album, but Dre was always considered a producer first, and this rapper's shift to producer/rapper is much more sudden and drastic. Still, it's an entertaining, vibrant, and artistically filling album, so consider it a "presents" effort and enjoy the show.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Joyas Prestadas (Banda)

Jenni Rivera
Featuring the royal single “Basta Ya,” Joyas Prestadas is banda singer Jenni Rivera’s all-covers album, featuring songs she first fell in love with while working as a record store cashier. Since she has a romantic heart, the material is mostly ballads, delivered in both pop and banda styles and packaged in polished production. [A "Banda Version" of the album was also released.]

David Jeffries, Rovi

channel ORANGE (Explicit Version)

Frank Ocean
Coming on the heels of 2011's heralded Tumblr-only freebie effort Nostalgia Ultra, Frank Ocean's proper debut Channel Orange firmly establishes the singer/songwriter as one of music's most unique storytellers. His tales tend toward the hyper-personal and are so steeped in naive optimism—even in the face of tragedy and defeat—that they could easily be read as either deeply moving or incredibly cheesy. At their best, they're both. Frank and producer Malay blend and wear their musical influences proudly, finding a sonic middle ground between vintage Stevie Wonder and recent N.E.R.D. Unfortunately, they tend to favor the formlessness of the latter, as Frank's meandering narratives about drug dealers and users and Los Angeles brats gone wild supersede his concern for traditional hook writing and song structure. But, by the album's second half, this ceases to be a weakness. Late cuts like the taxicab catharsis of "Bad Religion" and "Pink Matter," an epic duet with Outkast's Andre 3000 that invokes the human life cycle and Dragonball Z, operate with such naked honesty that they transcend the need for form.

-- – Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Life Is Good

Nas
Nas' gift and his curse has always been an abundance of ideas. Like every effort since his masterpiece debut Illmatic, Life Is Good—his tenth album—suffers from a violent lack of focus and an abundance of ideas that only occasionally gel thematically or sonically. The political intermingles sloppily with the personal and hard breakbeats get buried under the clutter of symphony orchestras. It's only when his producers give him some breathing room, stripping hip-hop down to its barest elements of little more than just a loop and a rhyme, on tracks like "Loco-Motive" and "Reach Out," that Nas is able to approach the glory of his early work. When he does, the flashes of brilliance still shine brightly, through artful turns of phrase like "sinister n**gas snicker through yellow teeth/ alcohol aging my n**gas faster than felonies."

-- Andrew Nosnitsky, 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

Demi

Demi Lovato
Her return from darkness out of the way, Demi Lovato returns to the serious business of stardom on Demi, her fourth album and the first positioned as the work of a true adult. Maturity is a bit of a tricky business on Demi, as it finds her copping modern trends without quite shaking off the studio system that fostered her. The latter is problematic, resulting in half-baked exercises in pageantry -- such as the "Skyscraper" rewrite "Nightingale" -- and the occasional cultural dissonance, like when she tells a suitor "you try to take me home like you're DiMaggio," a name not heard in a pop song for almost 25 years. Unfortunately, a lot of these stumbles arrive early in the record, but the back half of Demi shifts into a place where the studio professionalism and blatant cash-ins click. She brings in Cher Lloyd, winner of the seventh season of the British "X-Factor", to rap on the brightly brickwalled kiss-off "Really Don't Care," she skips through the wildly appealing "Something That We're Not" -- quite easily the purest and best piece of pop here -- and deliriously rips off Katy Perry's "Firework" on "Fire Starter," which is shameless in its appropriating the prior hit's construction and progression but not its attitude. This second half is strong enough to make some of the earlier, tentative moments seem a bit better -- this is particularly true of "Made in the USA," which cops Miley's "Party in the USA," but it's not quite so fetching an exploitation as "Fire Starter" -- but ultimately, this isn't an album of purpose, it's a collection of moments, and it has just enough good ones to solidify Demi Lovato's comeback. [Demi was also released with a bonus-CD-R track.]

Pink Friday... Roman Reloaded

Nicki Minaj
Left to her own devices, Nicki Minaj is undoubtedly one of rap's leading experimentalists. The opening six tracks of her sophomore album are mad scientist-brilliant, an unhinged machine gun spray of gender-confused, theatrical growls set to spastic layers of hopscotch rhythms. And then, ever so abruptly, the record resets itself as an act of pop conservatism as Nicki morphs into a Rihanna-like, Auto-Tuned cipher in the hands of chart-stomping producers like Red One (who's worked with Lady Gaga) and Dr. Luke (Katy Perry). Their europop formulas will certainly spin off a few radio hits but it's hard to view those as anything but underwhelming in the wake of the album's revolutionary first third. Roman Reloaded is a frustrating split screen of pop's beautifully twisted future and its increasingly dull present.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

The Lumineers

The Lumineers
The Lumineers, a folk-rock trio out of Denver, Colorado, have a pretty interesting sound, an Americana mesh of folk, rock, and gospel that is similar in tone to the Waterboys, say, or an alt-folk version of Bob Dylan circa Desire, thanks in no small part to Neyla Pekarek's inventive cello. And there are some very good tracks on this debut album, including the chamber honky tonk of "Dead Sea," the delightfully goofy but then ultimately sad and elegant "Submarines," and "Stubborn Love," which manages to be bright and chiming while also being haunting and mournful. Not everything here clicks together at that level, but each track is inventive, and when the songwriting and arrangements cross paths perfectly, as they do in the above songs, this is a delightful band.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Excuse My French

French Montana

Blue Slide Park

Mac Miller

Alicia Keys - VH1 Storytellers

Alicia Keys

The Black Parade

My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade is the third studio album by My Chemical Romance. Released on October 24, 2006 through Reprise Records, it was produced by Rob Cavallo, known for having produced multiple albums for Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day. It is a rock opera centering on a dying character with cancer known as "The Patient". The album tells the story of his apparent death, experiences in the afterlife, and subsequent reflection on his life.
Four singles were released from the album: "Welcome to the Black Parade", "Famous Last Words", "I Don't Love You", and "Teenagers". The Black Parade has received generally favorable reviews, and the band achieved its first Number 1 single in the UK with "Welcome to the Black Parade". The album debuted at number two on both the Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart and is also certified as platinum by the RIAA, as well as a Platinum certification in the UK and a Gold certificacion in Argentina by the CAPIF and in Chile by the IFPI Chile. The Black Parade was given the Platinum Europe Award by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry for 1 million sales in Europe. The limited edition boxed set also earned My Chemical Romance a Grammy Award nomination. In the video game Guitar Hero II, the song "Dead!" was added to the game's track list prior to the earlier PS2 version, and the three songs "Teenagers," "Famous Last Words" and "This Is How I Disappear" are available for download. The Black Parade has sold 1,610,000 copies in the US as of October 2010, and has sold 3,000,000 copies worldwide.

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Born To Die

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey's debut Born To Die was confounding indie critics long before its release, simply by being unapologetically pop. Lead single "Video Games" set up an intriguing, troublesome character—a passive, objectified girlfriend with outsized romantic daydreams and facile notions of "old Hollywood" glamour and noir—but Del Rey's drawling delivery sold it. That song's persona, its sedative languor and sweeping strings inform much of Born to Die's ballads, but so do moody hip-hop beats and distorted background shouts that recall, among other things, Kanye West's "Runaway." Better still are the more sprightly and playfully knowing pop moments of "Off to the Races, "Diet Mountain Dew," "Radio" and "National Anthem," where Del Rey almost breaks into a rap cadence. Of course Lana Del Rey is a put-on, but it's not an unpromising act.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

God Forgives, I Don't

Rick Ross
With 2009's Deeper Than Rap, Rick Ross' sophisticated-but-hardcore quiet storm approach firmly established the rotund Miami performer as street rap's preeminent superstar. So it's no surprise that he's still sticking to the same script on his fifth album, God Forgives, I Don't. Over triumphant, brass-heavy soul loops and low-end thumps, he barks and wheezes about the mechanics and rewards of his wholly imagined criminal empire. He threatens death and basks in his own life of luxury while heavyweight guests—Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Outkast's Andre 3000—fill the space in between. The returns have diminished, naturally, but not nearly as much as one might expect. Ross' well-polished narcissism remains oddly engaging.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Icky Thump

The White Stripes
A lot changed in the White Stripes' world between Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump: Meg White moved to L.A., while Jack White left Detroit for Nashville, married and had a daughter, and formed the Raconteurs, a side project that won so much praise that some fans worried that it meant the end of the Stripes. Those fears were as unfounded as the speculation that White's new hometown meant that the band was going to "go country" (after all, Jack and Meg are wearing the costumes of London's Pearly Kings and Queens, not Nudie suits, on Icky Thump's cover). Though it was recorded at Nashville's state-of-the-art Blackbird Studio and covers everything from bagpipes to metal, Icky Thump is unmistakably a White Stripes album. The eclectic feel of Get Behind Me Satan remains, but is less obvious; interestingly, out of all the band's previous work, Icky Thump's brash and confessional songs most closely resemble De Stijl. "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues"' acoustic blues and carefully crafted wordplay hark back to "Sister, Do You Know My Name." Meanwhile, "Rag & Bone" is a cute, ragamuffin cousin of "Let's Build a Home" that casts Jack and Meg as enterprising garbage-pickers; the sly grin in Jack's voice as he says "we'll give it a...home" is palpable. And, while Get Behind Me Satan was heavy on pianos, Icky Thump is just plain heavy, dominated by primal, stomping rock that feels like it's been caged for a very long time and is just now being released. Jack White's guitars are back in a big way; "Catch Hell Blues" is a particularly fine showcase for his playing. Once again, though, the Stripes defy expectations, and their "return to rock" isn't necessarily a return to the kind of rock they mastered on Elephant.

Aside from the searing "Bone Broke," which would fit on almost any White Stripes album (and in fact was partially written in 1998), on Icky Thump Jack and Meg push the boundaries of their louder side. Darker and slower than most Stripes singles, "Icky Thump" is their very own "Immigrant Song," with guitars that chug menacingly and lyrics that run the gamut from fever dream meditations on redhead senoritas to pointed political statements ("Why don't you kick yourself out/You're an immigrant too"). "Little Cream Soda" is also outstanding, pairing ranting, spoken-word verses with grinding surf-metal guitars that make it one of the Stripes' heaviest songs. However, the boldest excursion might be "Conquest," which turns Patti Page's '50s-era battle of the sexes into a garage rock bullfight, complete with dramatic mariachi brass, flamenco rhythms, backing vocals that would do Ennio Morricone proud, and dueling guitar and trumpet solos that capture the band's love of drama. As fantastic as Icky Thump's rockers are, its breathers are just as important. Though the Celtic detour that makes up Thump's heart feels out of place initially, "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" is indeed a sweet and genuine sounding homage to Scottish folk, bagpipes and all (and could also be a nod to the Rolling Stones' flirtation with British folk in the mid-'60s). And while its psychedelic counterpart "St. Andrews (This Battle Is in the Air)" doesn't work quite as well, it feels like the kind of quirky tangent that pops up on plenty of vintage albums as a palate cleanser. The Stripes' poppy and vulnerable sides get slightly short shrift on Icky Thump. "You Don't Know What Love Is" is so hooky it could just as easily be a Raconteurs song, though it boasts a guitar solo that stings like lemon juice in a paper cut. "I'm a Martyr for My Love for You" is the album's lone ballad, and while its melody is beautiful, it may be the album's weakest track. And though Icky Thump's track listing might be slightly front-loaded, the Stripes uphold their tradition of ending their albums on a playful note with the wonderful "Effect and Cause," which feels equally indebted to hillbilly wisdom and Mungo Jerry's sly jug-band shuffle. With its fuller sound and relaxed flights of fancy, Icky Thump is a mature, but far from stodgy, album -- and, as is usually the case, it's just great fun to hear the band play.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Hotel California (Explicit Version)

Tyga

War Is The Answer

Five Finger Death Punch
Five Finger Death Punch first stormed rock radio in 2007 with "The Bleeding" (from debut album The Way of the Fist), a powerful, emotionally tense track that matched vintage Metallica-style thrash with a throat-shredding chorus more typical of late-aughts metalcore. The Los Angeles-based band's sophomore disc, War Is the Answer, mines much of the same territory as that breakout song, keeping the flame of the classic '80s Four Horsemen sound alive with snap-tight chugga-chugga guitar rhythms, minor-key, classical music-inspired clean/acoustic passages, and vocals dripping with a James Hetfield-approved combination of sensitive angst and macho defiance. First single "Hard to See" backs a catchy, harmony vocal-laden melody with a syncopated groove so rhythmically engaging it could almost be called funky, while the closing track, "War Is the Answer," takes a headbanging riff seemingly straight out of the Anthrax songbook and uses it to drive home one of several ultra-aggressive sentiments ("To me you're just a cancer/War is the answer"). Elsewhere, Five Finger Death Punch delve into somewhat more diverse sonic territory; "Bulletproof" pairs a throbbing industrial feel reminiscent of late-period Ministry with Yngwie Malmsteen-esque melodic shred guitar solos and a vocal hook that recalls the '80s pop-prog of Asia and GTR, while "Far from Home" is a straight-up power ballad, complete with dramatic strings and a soaring chorus that could sit on a compilation album right alongside any big lighter-waver, from Staind's "It's Been Awhile" to Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

Pemberton Roach, Rovi

Side Effects of You

Fantasia

Hunter Hayes

Hunter Hayes
Possessed with boyish good looks suggesting a blonde Justin Bieber and being a genuine teen à la Taylor Swift, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss Hunter Hayes as country’s long-needed tween heartthrob, but that assumption overlooks an important part of his history: his co-authorship of “Play,” a 2010 album track for those Nashville slicksters Rascal Flatts. Behind that grin lies the heart of a pro, a craftsman who knows how to sincerely sell the insincere. Consequently, his 2011 eponymous debut isn’t nearly as gangly and unaffected as any of Swift’s records, even the one where she’s grappling with what it means to be a star, but he can mask his calculations with aplomb, dipping his toe into a Jason Mraz-styled singalong, just enough of a switch to suggest he could cross over but not enough to suggest he’s restless. Hayes is happy with the middle of the road -- it’s the quickest destination to stardom, after all -- and he’s bright and chipper, so charming he never seems like he’s gunning for the biggest possible audience. Such incessant good cheer and clean commercialism could grate, but he has an easy touch that would be appealing even if he didn’t have sugary melodies to sweeten the deal, yet he does -- he has crisp, bright, relentless melodies designed to win over any audience. Hunter Hayes may be pure Nashville product but he believes in what he’s selling, so it’s hard not to smile along as he hawks his wares.

F.A.M.E.

Chris Brown
Chris Brown's career was trending sharply downward. The singer’s self-titled debut went double platinum. Exclusive went single platinum. 2009’s Graffiti fell well short of gold-sales status, though it was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary R&B Album: far and away the worst disc to receive the honor. Rather than vanish and position himself for a spectacle-like comeback, Brown wisely continued to release new music through 2010. The offhandedly belligerent “Deuces” hit that summer and topped the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, while Brown also appeared on numerous singles headlined by others, including Twista’s Top Ten “Make a Movie.” By the time F.A.M.E. was released in March 2011, the album’s variety of styles was already known. A total of five songs, including the slinking pop-R&B of “Deuces,” had hit various singles charts. The bleepy rap track “Look at Me Now,” where Brown displays some competence as an MC but is devoured by Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes' rapid-fire verses, was one of them. The celebratory “Yeah 3x” and the anthemic “Beautiful People,” a pair of club singles, nodded to Eurodance. And then there was the smoothly percussive “No BS,” a slow jam with chivalrous sweet nothings like “I’m-a leave it in when we do it” and “Don’t you be on that bullshit.” Despite the success of some of these pre-album singles, they don’t represent the best of F.A.M.E. On the earnest ballad “Up to You,” the Michael Jackson/SWV-sampling “She Ain’t You,” and the remorseful “All Back” (written and produced by Timothy Bloom, one to watch), Brown plays to his strength as a boyish, romantic pop-R&B singer, while “Say It with Me” shows that he can handle harder grooves that are more R&B than pop. This all makes F.A.M.E. the equal of Forever, if not slightly better, and it hints that Brown’s best is yet to come.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Love Lust Faith + Dreams

Thirty Seconds To Mars
Never lacking in ambition, US space rockers 30 Seconds to Mars launched their first single from their fourth album, Love, Lust, Faith + Dreams into space (with a little help from NASA) on March 1 2013. The song itself, ‘Up in the Air’, is an anthemic, barnstorming slice of driving electro rock which demonstrates that the band – founded in 1998 by brothers Shannon and Hollywood actor Jared Leto – is constantly evolving. Fittingly given their latest adventure, the phrase “30 Seconds to Mars” comes from a thesis on man’s exponential growth of technology. Re-united with producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Killers) Jared Leto has described the new album to BBC Radio 1 as “stronger, better and more evolved” adding: “I really think that this could be the best thing we’ve ever done”. The sky is not necessarily the limit.

Rory Ford, Google Play

Joyas Prestadas (Pop)

Jenni Rivera
Featuring the royal single “Basta Ya,” Joyas Prestadas is banda singer Jenni Rivera’s all-covers album, featuring songs she first fell in love with while working as a record store cashier. Since she has a romantic heart, the material is mostly ballads, delivered in both pop and banda styles and packaged in polished production.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Kanye West Presents Good Music Cruel Summer

Various Artists
Kicking off with R. Kelly doing vocal gymnastics over the most polished and professional of Pop Wansel beats, Cruel Summer is a mistitled fireworks show from Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music label/roster/empire, one that comes off as mixtape-minded follow-up to his flossy Jay-Z team-up Watch the Throne. Big difference here is that the arrogance canon isn't aimed at anything particular, as West and company put their middle finger up "To the World," because those shoes are just so damn stylish you don't need a reason to tolerate anyone, anywhere, anytime. When Kanye mentions strolling into the Def Jam office and asking for another fifty million because he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, it isn't a connectable moment in the least, and as "Mercy.1" steals the listener's girlfriend for a hand job in the Lamborghini, it's hard not classify this as baller party for the "We Are the 1%" set, but anyone who can look past the vapid and still dream wetly about Kardashians or Giuseppe Zanotti shoes can latch onto this hypebeast and ride. "Mercy.1"'s ridiculously good hook, plus its thrill-ride construction from producer Lifted, is reason enough to forgive all the bling and its glare, and as new folks like Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Chief Keef mix with vets like Ghostface Killah, Common, Raekwon, and returning champ Jay-Z, the album has something for every thug all while West supplies the wicked laughs ("Mitt Romney don't pay no taxes," "MDMA party starts melting like Dali," and so on). Detractors have all the ammo they need as Chief Keef's homegrown hit "Don't Like.1" closes the album like a tacked-on bonus track, getting picked up off the streets and taught how to talk like a boss by West, Jadakiss, and friends. Still, it's a killer single both before and after the G.O.O.D. Music treatment, and one that caps off an album that's like the best bottle service you ever had. Anyone who thought Watch the Throne just wasn't Rick Ross-y enough will agree.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Believe

Justin Bieber
Hit single "Boyfriend" pushed 18-year-old Justin Bieber toward manhood with its sexy, moody sound, though the actual tone of Believe is set by the album's opening track, the club-ready "All Around the World," featuring Ludacris. The electro dance vibe continues on "As Long as You Love Me," featuring Big Sean, and "Beauty and a Beat" with Nicki Minaj. On the titular inspirational arena anthem, Bieber belts out his appreciation for his loyal fans backed by a choir, while on "Fall" he persuades a hesitant love to open her heart because "you can't fly unless you let yourself fall."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Under Construction

Missy Elliott
The fact that Missy Elliott still considers her work to be "under construction" should, justifiably, send everyone else in the rap world scurrying back to the drawing board. No other commercial rapper sounded more in command of her production and flow than Elliott during 2002, and it's no surprise that Under Construction ranks as one of the best rap LPs of the year (granted, it came against relatively weak competition). While Timbaland's stark digital soul girds these tracks, Missy herself continues her artistic progression, trying to push hip-hop forward with an almost pleading intro and neatly emphasizing her differences from other rappers by writing tracks for nearly every facet of the female side of relationships. The hit single "Work It" turns the tables on male rappers, taking charge of the sex game, matching their lewdest, rudest rhymes, and also featuring the most notorious backmasked vocal of the year. Elliott more than keeps up with a dirty-minded Method Man as well on "Bring the Pain," strikes back at haters on the self-explanatory "Gossip Folks," and produced her own duet with Beyoncé Knowles, "Nothing Out There for Me," a track that finds her trying to lure Knowles out to a party (using her best Timbaland impression) over the wishes of the diva's home-bound man. She also recognizes the constantly changing aspects of sexuality, admitting how dependent she is on a man during "Play That Beat" but ruminating on the curious power of the female persuasion on "P***ycat." Elliott goes on a refreshing old-school tear with "Back in the Day," featuring Jay-Z having more fun than he's had in a while and Missy crooning, "What happened to those good old days, when hip-hop was so much fun/those parties in the summer y'all, and no one came through with a gun." The disc closes with the TLC duet "Can You Hear Me," a tribute to Aaliyah and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. Missy Elliott obviously understands how important hip-hop can be when rappers concentrate on the music instead of the violent lifestyle; fortunately, her talents are just as strong as her vision.

John Bush, Rovi

Spring Break...Here To Party

Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan's Spring Break...Here to Party is a soundtrack for a rollicking, rowdy spring break -- a concept so clear and commercial it's a wonder nobody has done it before this 2013 set. Well, that's not quite true. Bryan himself has mined this territory before, releasing Spring Break EPs every year since 2009. This 2013 album rounds up those four EPs, adding a foul-mouthed demo of "Take My Drunk A** Home," all in service of having one hell of a good time. The song titles give the game away: "Suntan City," "Just a Sip," "If You Ain't Here to Party," "Shore Thing," "Wild Weekend." Despite a "Buzzkill" and "Spring Break-Up," there are no bad times here and no ballads, either. It's all bright, cheerful, polished arena country, designed for the beach or, better still, landlocked college towns pining for sunshine in the midst of March. Not one song is undeniable, the kind that works into the subconscious, but that doesn't really matter, as this is just breezy fun, a collection of cheerful drinking songs that never threaten to careen out of control.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Settle

Disclosure

Eye On It

TobyMac
Arguably, tobyMac's success as a solo act has eclipsed that of DC Talk, the trailblazing alt-pop trio that he founded in the '90s. With each new solo release (and over 10 million in sales), this Grammy winner pushes the limits of the Christian genre with a commitment to diversity and collaboration that sets him apart. On the heels of 2010's chart-topping Tonight, Eye on It finds tobyMac leaning more into his electropop and R&B sensibilities than historic hip-hop roots, delivering energizing tracks like "Me Without You" and the title track. Ballads "Steal My Show" and "Forgiveness" (featuring rap artist Lecrae) take listeners beyond the hype to the heart of the artist. Group 1 Crew's Blanca Callahan and tobyMac's label prodigy Jamie Grace also lend their voices to Eye on It, a reflective milestone in his storied career.

Melissa Riddle Chalos, Google Play

Fórmula Vol. 1

Romeo Santos
Formula, Vol. 1, the debut offering by Anthony "Romeo" Santos, former lead vocalist for Aventura, was preceded by two hit singles. First was the easy summertime groove of "You," followed by "Promise," a shimmering duet with Usher. Both tracks hit the top spot on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs and Tropical Songs charts. On this 15-track full-length set, Santos offers proof that the singles were merely teasers. Kept mainly to slow to midtempo ballads -- all of which he wrote or co-wrote -- Santos and his slippery tenor cross bachata, nuevo flamenco, and merengue, melded with just enough contemporary R&B, to create an intoxicating brew. Other standouts include "Soberbio," "La Bella y la Bestia," and "All Aboard," in collaboration with Lil Wayne.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Girl On Fire

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

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Waiting For My Rocket To Come

Jason Mraz
Jason Mraz's Waiting for My Rocket to Come is a two-part invention. The first level is that of a young, almost compelling, singer/songwriter. Mraz has a nice voice, perhaps a little too articulated at times, which manages to mostly avoid the histrionic despite a predilection towards show tuney melodic turns. His voice tumbles out on top of folk-reggae rhythms that will probably sound a bit dated with time, but his vocals are filled with enough internal rhythms and rhymes to keep them interesting. Lyrically, Mraz relies on cliché to a certain degree, but does so with an earnestness that allows for believability and an eye for imagery that succeeds often enough to suggest that he knows what he's doing. The second level of Waiting for My Rocket to Come is the production of John Alagía, whose work has enhanced other similar folk-pop fair, including the Dave Matthews Band and O.A.R. His work with Mraz is, at its best, transparent, filling out the songs with subtle and glossy production and instrumentation. Reflections of banjos, organs, mellotrons, lap steels, ukuleles, and others peak out through the shine of the tunes, creating an impact too rich to be written off as lite.

Jesse Jarnow, Rovi

Riot!

Paramore
Move over, Avril; there's a new gun in town. And even though Paramore's lead singer Hayley Williams is a few years younger than her predecessor, she has a way bigger set of vocal pipes. Lavigne and Williams share a similar register, but Williams belts it out with way more control and authority. She may even be more of a respectable pop idol since her image isn't manufactured to be rebellious and angst-ridden; instead, Williams appears to be a genuinely sweet girl, bottling up a huge voice and a heart full of lost loves. On 2008's Riot!, she fills the majority of her punk-pop tales with emo angst and declarations of boy woes. Contrived as this may sound, her lyrics feel authentic and representative of actual teenage puppy love, where a breakup feels like the end of the world. Filled with crossover potential, the songs are consistant and zippy with catchy hooks in the vein of Boys Like Girls fronted by a young Shirley Manson. Meanwhile, the production is sparkling and heavily compressed due to the golden hands of David Bendeth, but these ultra-clean sonics also tend to cramp up the band -- clouding the dynamics and turning the listening experience into a relatively risk-free one. When the group breaks away from the chugging guitar Fall Out Boy formula, they're at their best. Mid-song breakdowns and cathartic power ballads (think "Don't Speak") showcase the band's maturity as musicians. More importantly, Williams shines through in these openings. In the last track, "Born for This," she takes a break from her love confessions and commands everyone to sing like it's the last song they will ever sing, making for a sentimental finale and a perfect closer for the live shows.

Jason Lymangrover, Rovi

Love Is Everything

George Strait
George Strait decided he'd retire from the road once he turned 60, so he launched a farewell tour in 2013 that is scheduled to run into 2014. Hanging up his concert hat doesn't necessarily indicate that he's taking a break from recording, so there's no suggestion that Love Is Everything -- his 28th studio album, released in May of 2013, just as the farewell tour began -- will be his final recording. True enough, Love Is Everything does not have the gravity that's required of a final statement, as it glides by with the natural ease that has been Strait's signature since the start. This light touch combined with Strait's unapologetic slowing gait -- there aren't nearly as many breezy numbers as there were last time around on 2011's Here for a Good Time -- make for an appealingly mellow little record, one heavy on ballads ranging from such sweet pieces of sunburnt pop as "Sittin' on the Fence" to such old-fashioned romantic crooning such as "I Just Can't Go on Dying Like This," which would have felt equally comfortable in the hands of either George Jones or Frank Sinatra. Strait can still kick up a little dust -- "The Night Is Young" is a good Texas two-step, "I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing" nearly bounces along on the giddiness of its melody -- but he's not so concerned in exercising that swing muscle all that often. He'd rather lay back and sings songs of love won and lost, and even if that means Love Is Everything isn't necessarily ambitious, it is remarkably satisfying.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies

Volbeat
In the two-and-half years since Volbeat's wildly successful Beyond Hell/Above Heaven, they've traveled some miles, both literally and figuratively. They toured not only Europe but the U.S. and Canada in support for nearly a year, and parted ways with lead guitarist Thomas Bredahl. A permanent replacement was found in Robert Caggiano, formerly of Anthrax, who was enlisted to produce Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies and play on select tracks. His addition has proved integral to the band's ever evolving sound. While the meld of various kinds of heavy metal, country, and rockabilly is still present here -- it is now undoubtedly the sound of Volbeat itself -- the lines between those styles are less pronounced. The sometimes jarring shift from rockabilly to thrash, from death metal to the Johnny Cash-country on previous albums, still happens, but here these sounds often coexist within the same song. While it is accurate to say that this set is more accessible than anything Volbeat has attempted previously, it is also the most ambitious set of tracks they've committed to tape. The songwriting is tight, focused; there are lots of hooks, most of them heavy -- thanks, no doubt, to Caggiano's presence. His playing style is full of insanely catchy riffs, vamps, and intricate melodies. Michael Tomas Poulsen's vocals still blend Elvis, James Hetfield, and Keith Caputo, but they growl less; they're expressive and natural sounding. Hard rock and vintage HM are the prevalent sounds here -- as heard on cuts like "Pearl Heart," the riff-arific "The Nameless One," and the aggressive attack in "The Hangman's Body Count." The slow, doomy chug of "Room 24" melds early Black Sabbath to death metal with King Diamond guesting on vocals. Another surprise is in the cover of Young the Giant's "My Body." Thanks to Poulsen's awesome singing and the blasting guitars, it could pass as a Volbeat anthem. An excellent example of all the band's styles converging at once is in "Black Bart," with death metal, Gun Club-style punk-country, and even Thin Lizzy's twin lead guitars. Former Dubstar and Client vocalist Sarah Blackwood sings with Poulsen on "Lonesome Rider," where slap bass rockabilly and hooky '80s metal commingle. Thin Lizzy also get channeled on the killer "The Sinner Is You," while Civil War-era banjo introduces the theatrical country meets death metal choogler "Doc Holliday." A high lonesome desert harmonica à la Ennio Morricone introduces closer "Our Loved Ones," which is as fine a melodic headbanger as anything the band's ever cut. While it is accurate to say that Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies is more accessible than anything Volbeat has attempted previously, it is also the most ambitious -- and arguably enjoyable -- set they've committed to tape.

La Misma Gran Señora

Jenni Rivera
Two new tracks and a set of old favorites fill this moving, posthumous release that landed on shelves and in online stores only two days after the superstar singer died suddenly when a plane carrying her and members of her family and touring organization crashed in the mountains of northern Mexico. Think "amazing what they can do in just two days" rather than anything crass, because this set takes great care with the artist's legacy, collecting defining numbers like "Besos y Copas," "Hermano Amigo," and the original "La Gran Señora." Of course, the big draw here is the title track, a soaring song that triumphantly declares that the 2012, recently post-divorce Rivera is still the same "grand woman" she always was. It's as bittersweet as they come, and a great reason to pick this Jenni Rivera collection over the others.

David Jeffries, Rovi

True Believers

Darius Rucker

Louder Now

Taking Back Sunday
One has to hand it to Taking Back Sunday. Three albums in, they are now pretty much experts at re-creating their own sound, so much so that they can essentially make the same album repeatedly -- but you know, different -- yet still manage to rock hard enough underneath verbose lyrics that even those who notice the unabashed similarities to past releases just won't care. And yeah, obviously similar-sounding albums would be expected and somewhat desired from the same band. But really, it's quite obvious they take the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" motto straight to their emotive hearts. Since their debut Tell All Your Friends -- the album that broke TBS out as front-runners in the independent emo-rock scene of the early 2000s -- the band has managed to regurgitate their time-tested approach of layering multiple vocals spewing embittered lyrics over guitar-driven up-and-down dynamics on each subsequent release. Only by 2006, they've managed to influence so many upstarts along the way, their once-unique formula seems almost commonplace. With that being said, the band's songwriting has admittedly matured within that mold, honing their sound into one fit for arenas. Louder Now is an apt title for a super-tight, aggressive album that falls somewhere between their last two, tapping the heartfelt vigor of Tell All Your Friends in order to give Where You Want to Be a swift, square kick in the pants. "What's It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?" opens with terse riffing that soon surges with a composed feeling of frenzy over a thick, dirty bassline as Adam Lazzara declares "Are you up for, are you up for this?" Following suit, "Liar (It Takes One to Know One)" doesn't miss a beat, rocking out amid trademark, animated wordplay between Lazzara and guitarist Fred Mascherino. "Twenty-Twenty Surgery" simply soars with the richest vocals on the album, and "My Blue Heaven" (whose beginning vaguely resembles Third Eye Blind's "Wounded") brings in the strings for added effect. Louder Now benefits from Eric Valentine's clean production touch that isn't overly slick, giving the band plenty of breathing room to ponder, crunch, and explode at will with seamless elasticity. Taking Back Sunday is a prime example of a band not needing a drastic makeover every few years to remain relevant to their audience. However, even if Louder Now brings the mosh-pit fun ready to be embraced by new and old fans alike, an attempt to push themselves further would be more than welcomed. Regardless, the album seems like it could finally boost TBS to the My Chemical Romance-level of airwave domination -- so watch out.

Corey Apar, Rovi