Pop's Most Enduring

Thriller

Michael Jackson
Off the Wall was a massive success, spawning four Top Ten hits (two of them number ones), but nothing could have prepared Michael Jackson for Thriller. Nobody could have prepared anybody for the success of Thriller, since the magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable -- an album that sold 40 million copies in its initial chart run, with "seven" of its nine tracks reaching the Top Ten (for the record, the terrific "Baby Be Mine" and the pretty good ballad "The Lady in My Life" are not like the others). This was a record that had something for everybody, building on the basic blueprint of Off the Wall by adding harder funk, hard rock, softer ballads, and smoother soul -- expanding the approach to have something for every audience. That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience, but it also arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star as much as the network helped him. This all would have made it a success (and its success, in turn, served as a new standard for success), but it stayed on the charts, turning out singles, for nearly two years because it was really, really good. True, it wasn't as tight as Off the Wall -- and the ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors title track is the prime culprit, arriving in the middle of the record and sucking out its momentum -- but those one or two cuts don't detract from a phenomenal set of music. It's calculated, to be sure, but the chutzpah of those calculations (before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut) is outdone by their success. This is where a song as gentle and lovely as "Human Nature" coexists comfortably with the tough, scared "Beat It," the sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," and the frizzy funk of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." And, although this is an undeniably fun record, the paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in the record's two best songs: "Billie Jean," where a woman claims Michael is the father of her child, and the delirious "Wanna Be Startin' Something," the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded. These give the record its anchor and are part of the reason why the record is more than just a phenomenon. The other reason, of course, is that much of this is just simply great music.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Nevermind

Nirvana
Twenty years after the release of an album that irreversibly altered the landscape of popular music comes this enormous five-disc box set that features, alongside the original album, three CDs of previously unreleased recordings, rarities, B-sides, BBC radio appearances, alternative mixes, rare live recordings, and a DVD featuring an entire previously unreleased concert.

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

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

Appetite For Destruction

Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses' debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s -- it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N' Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers -- namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll -- but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn't see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early '80s. It's a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose's misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that's exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record -- not only does Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad "Sweet Child O' Mine." He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it's on the charging "Welcome to the Jungle," the heroin ode "Mr. Brownstone," or "Paradise City," which simply wants out. But as good as Rose's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Black Album

Jay-Z
If The Black Album is Jay-Z's last, as he publicly stated it will be, it illustrates an artist going out in top form. For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper "and" the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent hip-hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career. The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock. The only issue that's puzzling about The Black Album is why one of the best rappers needs to say goodbye -- unless, of course, he's simply afraid of being taken for granted and wants listeners to imagine a rap world without him.

John Bush, Rovi

The Eminem Show

Eminem
It's all about the title. First time around, Eminem established his alter-ego, Slim Shady -- the character who deliberately shocked and offended millions, turning Eminem into a star. Second time at bat, he turned out The Marshall Mathers LP, delving deeper into his past while revealing complexity as an artist and a personality that helped bring him an even greater audience and much, much more controversy. Third time around, it's The Eminem Show -- a title that signals that Eminem's public persona is front and center, for the very first time. And it is, as he spends much of the album commenting on the media circus that dominated on his life ever since the release of Marshall Mathers. This, of course, encompasses many, many familiar subjects -- his troubled childhood; his hatred of his parents; his turbulent relationship with his ex-wife, Kim (including the notorious incident when he assaulted a guy who allegedly kissed her -- the event that led to their divorce); his love of his daughter, Hailie; and, of course, all the controversy he generated, notably the furor over his alleged homophobia and his scolding from Lynne Cheney, which leads to furious criticism about the hypocrisy of America and its government. All this is married to a production very similar to that of its predecessor -- spare, funky, fluid, and vibrant, punctuated with a couple of ballads along the way. So, that means The Eminem Show is essentially a holding pattern, but it's a glorious one -- one that proves Eminem is the gold standard in pop music in 2002, delivering stylish, catchy, dense, funny, political music that rarely panders (apart from a power ballad "Dream On" rewrite on "Sing for the Moment" and maybe the sex rap "Drips," that is). Even if there is little new ground broken, the presentation is exceptional -- Dre never sounds better as a producer than when Eminem pushes him forward (witness the stunning oddity "Square Dance," a left-field classic with an ominous waltz beat) and, with three albums under his belt, Eminem has proven himself as one of the all-time classic MCs, surprising as much with his delivery as with what he says. Plus, the undercurrent of political anger -- not just attacking Lynne Cheney, but raising questions about the Bush administration -- gives depth to his typical topics, adding a new, spirited dimension to his shock tactics as notable as the deep sentimental streak he reveals on his odes to his daughter. Perhaps the album runs a little too long at 20 songs and 80 minutes and would have flowed better if trimmed by 25 minutes, but that's a typical complaint about modern hip-hop records. Fact is, it still delivers more great music than most of its peers in rock or rap, and is further proof that Eminem is an artist of considerable range and dimension. [The clean version of this album has been edited in attempt to remove profane material.]

Back To Black

Amy Winehouse
The story of Back to Black is one in which celebrity and the potential of commercial success threaten to ruin Amy Winehouse, since the same insouciance and playfulness that made her sound so special when she debuted could easily have been whitewashed right out of existence for this breakout record. (That fact may help to explain why fans were so scared by press allegations that Winehouse had deliberately lost weight in order to present a slimmer appearance.) Although Back to Black does see her deserting jazz and wholly embracing contemporary R&B, all the best parts of her musical character emerge intact, and actually, are all the better for the transformation from jazz vocalist to soul siren. With producer Salaam Remi returning from Frank, plus the welcome addition of Mark Ronson (fresh off successes producing for Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams), Back to Black has a similar sound to Frank but much more flair and spark to it. Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that "anyone", even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/You go back to her, and I go back to black").

John Bush, Rovi

808s & Heartbreak

Kanye West
Remember when Kanye West threatened to make an album where he would bear his heartbroken soul, align with T-Pain, sing on every song with the then inescapable Auto-Tune effect, and lean on the Roland TR-808 drum machine? It could have been a wreck, a case of an artist working through paralyzing heartache while loose in a toy store. Except West wasn't joking. In various spots across 808s & Heartbreak, the constant flutter of West's processed voice is enlivened by the disarming manner in which despair and dejection are conveyed. Several tracks have almost as much in common with irrefutably bleak post-punk albums as contemporary rap and R&B. For anyone sifting through a broken relationship and self-letdown, this could all be therapeutic.

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine
Seething with revolutionary spirit, the self-titled debut of Rage Against the Machine record had social, cultural and musical rebellion at its very core. In the group's marriage of heavy metal guitars and hip-hop rebellion, tunes like "Killing in the Name," "Take the Power Back" and "Know Your Enemy" were a singular crystallization of underground movements that were waiting to burst through to a mainstream audience, and the band's uncompromising message was every bit as astonishing as their commercial success. Years after its release, guitarist Tom Morello's brilliant, jagged shredding and the eloquent fury of vocalist Zack de la Rocha are just as incendiary as ever.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Illmatic

Nas
Often cited as one of the best hip-hop albums of the '90s, Illmatic is the undisputed classic upon which Nas' reputation rests. It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip-hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics. Yet even if Illmatic marks the beginning of a shift away from Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap, it's strongly rooted in that sensibility. For one, Nas employs some of the most sophisticated jazz-rap producers around: Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor, who underpin their intricate loops with appropriately tough beats. But more importantly, Nas takes his place as one of hip-hop's greatest street poets -- his rhymes are highly literate, his raps superbly fluid regardless of the size of his vocabulary. He's able to evoke the bleak reality of ghetto life without losing hope or forgetting the good times, which become all the more precious when any day could be your last. As a narrator, he doesn't get too caught up in the darker side of life -- he's simply describing what he sees in the world around him, and trying to live it up while he can. He's thoughtful but ambitious, announcing on "N.Y. State of Mind" that "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," and that he's "out for dead presidents to represent me" on "The World Is Yours." Elsewhere, he flexes his storytelling muscles on the classic cuts "Life's a Bitch" and "One Love," the latter a detailed report to a close friend in prison about how allegiances within their group have shifted. Hip-hop fans accustomed to 73-minute opuses sometimes complain about Illmatic's brevity, but even if it leaves you wanting more, it's also one of the few '90s rap albums with absolutely no wasted space. Illmatic is a great lyricist, in top form, meeting great production, and it remains a perennial favorite among serious hip-hop fans.

80's Pop Number 1's

Various Artists

Like A Prayer

Madonna
Out of all of Madonna's albums, Like a Prayer is her most explicit attempt at a major artistic statement. Even though it is apparent that she is trying to make a "serious" album, the kaleidoscopic variety of pop styles on Like a Prayer is quite dazzling. Ranging from the deep funk of "Express Yourself" and "Keep It Together" to the haunting "Oh Father" and "Like a Prayer," Madonna displays a commanding sense of songcraft, making this her best and most consistent album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Licensed To Ill

Beastie Boys

Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded

Rihanna
When you've released a pair of albums containing a few monster singles and a considerable amount of unsteady, unassured material, why mess around the third time out? From beginning to end, Good Girl Gone Bad is as pop as pop got in 2007, each one of its 12 songs a potential hit in some territory. Unlike Music of the Sun or A Girl Like Me, neither Caribbean flavorings nor ballad ODs are part of the script, and there isn't an attempt to make something as theatrical as "Unfaithful." There is, however, another '80s hit involved: just as "SOS" appropriated Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love," "Shut Up and Drive" turns New Order's "Blue Monday" into a sleek, forthcoming proposition, one that is as undeniable and rocking as Sugababes' 2002 U.K. smash "Freak Like Me" (a cover of Adina Howard's 1995 hit that swiped from another '80s single, Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric?"). "Shut Up and Drive" is part of an all-upbeat opening sequence that carries through five songs. Rihanna knows exactly what she wants and is in total control at all times, even when she's throwing things and proclaiming "I'm a fight a man" amid marching percussion and synthesizers set on "scare" during "Breakin' Dishes." The album's lead song and lead single, "Umbrella," is her best to date, delivering mammoth if spacious drums, a towering backdrop during the chorus, and vocals that are somehow totally convincing without sounding all that impassioned -- an ideal spot between trying too hard and boredom, like she might've been on her 20th take, which only adds to the song's charm. The album's second half is relatively varied and a little heavier on acoustic guitar use, but it's not lacking additional standouts. Three consecutive Timbaland productions, including one suited for a black college marching band and another that effectively pulls the romantically codependent heartstrings, enhance the album rather than make it more scattered. [The "Reloaded" edition of the album adds three bonus tracks.]

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Graduation

Kanye West

Significant Other

Limp Bizkit
Limp Bizkit made their reputation through hard work, touring the hell out of their debut album Three Dollar Bill Y'All and thereby elevating themselves to the popularity status of their similarly rap-inflected, alt-metal mentors Korn. With their second album, Significant Other, they come close to reaching Korn's artistic level; at the very least, it's considerably more ambitious and multi-dimensional than Three Dollar Bill. Limp Bizkit, of course, hasn't abandoned their testosterone-overloaded signature sound, they've just built around it. There are flourishes of neo-psychedelia on pummeling metal numbers and there are swirls of strings, even crooning, at the most unexpected background. All of it simply enhances the force of their rap-metal attack, which can get a little tedious if it's unadorned. Not so coincidentally, the enlarged sonic palette also serves as emotional coloring for Fred Durst's lyrics. He broke up with his longtime girlfriend -- his Significant Other, if you will -- during the writing of the album, and his anguish is apparent throughout the record, as almost every song is infused with the guilt, anger, and regret that churned up in the wake of separation. That, however, gives the impression that this is an alt-metal Blood on the Tracks. It's not. Nevertheless, it does have more emotional weight than Three Dollar Bill, along with more effective, adventurous music. More importantly, it balances these new concerns with trace elements of their juvenile humor along with the overpowering aggro rap-metal that is their stock in trade. Which makes it a rare artistic leap forward that will still please audiences that just want more of the same. [The import edition comes with a bonus disc that features several remixes, including versions of "Break Stuff," "Faith," "Nookie," and "N 2 Gether Now."]

Crazysexycool

TLC
On their second album, TLC downplay their overt rap connections, recording a smooth, seductive collection of contemporary soul reminiscent of both Philly soul and Prince, powered by new jack and hip-hop beats. Lisa Lopes contributes the occasional rap, but the majority of CrazySexyCool belongs to Tionne Watkins and Rozonda Thomas. While they aren't the most accomplished vocalists -- they have a tendency to be just slightly off-key -- the material they sing is consistently strong. As the cover of Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend" indicates, TLC favor erotic, mid-tempo funk. Yet the group removes any of the psychosexual complexities of Prince's songs, leaving a batch of sexy material that just sounds good, especially the hit singles. Both "Creep" and "Red Light Special" have a deep groove that accentuates the slinky hooks, but it's "Waterfalls," with its gently insistent horns and guitar lines and instantly memorable chorus, that ranks as one of the classic R&B songs of the '90s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Hits 1

Prince
Prince's two-part Hits collection includes enough necessary items to illustrate why he was one of the most influential and gifted musicians of the '80s, as well as providing a reasonable introduction and compilation for casual fans. Hits 1 contains a good cross section of his biggest hits -- "When Doves Cry" (presented in an edited version), "When You Were Mine," "Let's Go Crazy," "1999," "Sign 'O' the Times," "Alphabet Street," "Diamonds and Pearls," "7" -- plus new items like "Pink Cashmere" and "Nothing Compares 2 U" (a Prince song that Sinéad O'Connor took to number one) that are nearly as good as the familiar tracks.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Enter The Wu-Tang

Wu-Tang Clan
Along with Dr. Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production -- courtesy of RZA -- mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.

Steve Huey, Rovi

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

Songs In A Minor

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blizzard Of Ozz (Expanded Edition)

Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne's 1981 solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, was a masterpiece of neo-classical metal that, along with Van Halen's first album, became a cornerstone of '80s metal guitar. Upon its release, there was considerable doubt that Ozzy could become a viable solo attraction. Blizzard of Ozz demonstrated not only his ear for melody, but also an unfailing instinct for assembling top-notch backing bands. Onetime Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads was a startling discovery, arriving here as a unique, fully formed talent. Rhoads was just as responsible as Osbourne -- perhaps even more so -- for the album's musical direction, and his application of classical guitar techniques and scales rewrote the rulebook just as radically as Eddie Van Halen had. Rhoads could hold his own as a flashy soloist, but his detailed, ambitious compositions and arrangements revealed his true depth, as well as creating a sense of doomy, sinister elegance built on Ritchie Blackmore's minor-key innovations. All of this may seem to downplay the importance of Ozzy himself, which shouldn't be the case at all. The music is a thoroughly convincing match for his lyrical obsession with the dark side (which was never an embrace, as many conservative watchdogs assumed); so, despite its collaborative nature, it is unequivocally stamped with Ozzy's personality. What's more, the band is far more versatile and subtle than Sabbath, freeing Ozzy from his habit of singing in unison with the guitar (and proving that he had an excellent grasp of how to frame his limited voice). Nothing short of revelatory, Blizzard of Ozz deservedly made Ozzy a star, and it set new standards for musical virtuosity in the realm of heavy metal. [2011's 30th Anniversary edition of Blizzard of Ozz (which was also released on double vinyl) featured a newly remastered and restored edition of the original album, as well as the bonus cuts "You Looking at Me, Looking at You (Non-LP B-Side, Previously Unreleased in the U.S.)," "Goodbye to Romance (2010 Guitar & Vocal Mix, Previously Unreleased)," and "RR (Previously Unreleased: Randy Rhoads Guitar Solo)."]

Steve Huey, Rovi

TP-2.com

R. Kelly
R. Kelly tames his ambitions a bit on TP-2.Com, assembling a simple sequel to his classic 12 Play album from 1993 rather than another epic venture like his double-disc all-bases-covered R. album from 1998. The straightforwardness is somewhat of a welcome endeavor. As breath-taking as had been R. -- an album that straddled the huge gap between the sort of radio-pop associated with Celine Dion as well as the street-rap of Jay-Z and Nas -- it also seemed too overblown at times, as if Kelly had something to prove during an era of double-disc epic rap albums. So to see him return to the simple singles approach of 12 Play is refreshing, particularly since he has plenty of singles to work with here, just as he had with TP-1. Kelly furthermore unleashed his singles -- "I Wish," a mass-appeal vocal pop number with an urban edge; "Fiesta," a Latin Invasion cash-in that aims for the dancefloor; and "Feelin' on Yo Booty," a whispery come-on for all the weak-kneed ladies and some of the mindful ones too -- with tailor-made remixes to ensure himself broad airplay. Only one of those remixes is here though, the "I Wish" one, so take heed. There's no Jay-Z-featuring remix of "Fiesta" and no uptempo one of "Feelin' on Yo Booty," yet TP-2.Com is a strong album nonetheless, three steps ahead of practically every other non-rap urban album from 2000. It does seem like Kelly is coasting a bit here at times, though, particularly when you hold TP-2.Com up against its massive predecessor, but even when R's lounging, he's generally ahead of the pack. [The clean version edits moments of profanity.]

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits

Janis Joplin
A solid, if skimpy, ten-track best-of that gathers the most important songs from Janis Joplin's solo career, as well as her stint with Big Brother & the Holding Company. The compilation 18 Essential Songs offers a wider selection, but does not include the original version of "Me and Bobby McGee," which makes Greatest Hits the better purchase for those who only want one Janis Joplin disc, even if it isn't definitive. The 1999 CD reissue adds two bonus tracks, "Maybe" and "Mercedes Benz."

Steve Huey, Rovi

Walking On A Dream

Empire Of The Sun
Empire of the Sun's debut offering of experimental electro-pop and dance-rock is very well-timed, hitting the market just as the buzz surrounding MGMT's Oracular Spectacular has started to recede. Like those similarly colorful Americans, Empire of the Sun's two members embrace the glam lifestyle in spirit and song, wearing festive costumes in concert and festooning their music with oddball flourishes, androgynous lyrics, and a general sense of theatricality that borders on schizophrenia. Walking on a Dream runs an interesting gamut, sampling equally from hip-hop ("Swordfish Hotkiss Night"), arty synth pop ("Standing on the Shore"), and all the stops in between. With its programmed percussion and futuristic keyboards, the music sounds slightly more indebted to Pnau than the Sleepy Jackson; nevertheless, Luke Steele (the brains behind the latter band) takes center stage on the bulk of these songs, speak-singing in a childish tenor one minute and cooing like a lovestruck female the next. The aforementioned MGMT followed a similar path with their own debut -- a fact that simply cannot be emphasized enough, given the vast similarities between both records -- but while MGMT took cues from the likes of David Bowie and Prince, Empire of the Sun's fusion is more reminiscent of worldbeat and fantasy movie soundtracks. The outlandish cover art follows suit, as Steele and Nick Littlemore (dressed up in bizarre Star Wars-styled regalia) are flanked by a decorative elephant, a tiger, and what appears to be the skyline of Atlantis. Like the music it promotes, the cover art is purposely ludicrous, but listeners who have a palette for such whimsy should walk away happy.

Blood On The Tracks

Bob Dylan
Following on the heels of an album where he repudiated his past with his greatest backing band, Blood on the Tracks finds Bob Dylan, in a way, retreating to the past, recording a largely quiet, acoustic-based album. But this is hardly nostalgia -- this is the sound of an artist returning to his strengths, what feels most familiar, as he accepts a traumatic situation, namely the breakdown of his marriage. This is an album alternately bitter, sorrowful, regretful, and peaceful, easily the closest he ever came to wearing his emotions on his sleeve. That's not to say that it's an explicitly confessional record, since many songs are riddles or allegories, yet the warmth of the music makes it feel that way. The original version of the album was even quieter -- first takes of "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue," available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, are hushed and quiet (excised verses are quoted in the liner notes, but not heard on the record) -- but Blood on the Tracks remains an intimate, revealing affair since these harsher takes let his anger surface the way his sadness does elsewhere. As such, it's an affecting, unbearably poignant record, not because it's a glimpse into his soul, but because the songs are remarkably clear-eyed "and" sentimental, lovely and melancholy at once. And, in a way, it's best that he was backed with studio musicians here, since the professional, understated backing lets the songs and emotion stand at the forefront. Dylan made albums more influential than this, but he never made one better.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Stankonia

OutKast
Stankonia was OutKast's second straight masterstroke, an album just as ambitious, just as all-over-the-map, and even hookier than its predecessor. With producers Organized Noize playing a diminished role, Stankonia reclaims the duo's futuristic bent. Earthtone III (Andre, Big Boi, Mr. DJ) helms most of the backing tracks, and while the live-performance approach is still present, there's more reliance on programmed percussion, otherworldly synthesizers, and surreal sound effects. Yet the results are surprisingly warm and soulful, a trippy sort of techno-psychedelic funk. Every repeat listen seems to uncover some new element in the mix, but most of the songs have such memorable hooks that it's easy to stay diverted. The immediate dividends include two of 2000's best singles: "B.O.B." is the fastest of several tracks built on jittery drum'n'bass rhythms, but Andre and Big Boi keep up with awe-inspiring effortlessness. "Ms. Jackson," meanwhile, is an anguished plea directed at the mother of the mother of an out-of-wedlock child, tinged with regret, bitterness, and affection. Its sensitivity and social awareness are echoed in varying proportions elsewhere, from the Public Enemy-style rant "Gasoline Dreams" to the heartbreaking suicide tale "Toilet Tisha." But the group also returns to its roots for some of the most testosterone-drenched material since their debut. Then again, OutKast doesn't take its posturing too seriously, which is why they can portray women holding their own, or make bizarre boasts about being "So Fresh, So Clean." Given the variety of moods, it helps that the album is broken up by brief, usually humorous interludes, which serve as a sort of reset button. It takes a few listens to pull everything together, but given the immense scope, it's striking how few weak tracks there are. It's no wonder Stankonia consolidated OutKast's status as critics' darlings, and began attracting broad new audiences: its across-the-board appeal and ambition overshadowed nearly every other pop album released in 2000.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Come Away With Me

Norah Jones
Norah Jones' debut on Blue Note is a mellow, acoustic pop affair with soul and country overtones, immaculately produced by the great Arif Mardin. (It's pretty much an open secret that the 22-year-old vocalist and pianist is the daughter of Ravi Shankar.) Jones is not quite a jazz singer, but she is joined by some highly regarded jazz talent: guitarists Adam Levy, Adam Rogers, Tony Scherr, Bill Frisell, and Kevin Breit; drummers Brian Blade, Dan Rieser, and Kenny Wollesen; organist Sam Yahel; accordionist Rob Burger; and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Her regular guitarist and bassist, Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander, respectively, play on every track and also serve as the chief songwriters. Both have a gift for melody, simple yet elegant progressions, and evocative lyrics. (Harris made an intriguing guest appearance on Seamus Blake's Stranger Things Have Happened.) Jones, for her part, wrote the title track and the pretty but slightly restless "Nightingale." She also includes convincing readings of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," J.D. Loudermilk's "Turn Me On," and Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You." There's a touch of Rickie Lee Jones in Jones' voice, a touch of Bonnie Raitt in the arrangements; her youth and her piano skills could lead one to call her an Alicia Keys for grown-ups. While the mood of this record stagnates after a few songs, it does give a strong indication of Jones' alluring talents.

David R. Adler, Rovi

Toxicity

System Of A Down
System of a Down's 1998 debut was initially overlooked by the mainstream hard rock audience, as well as the specialized press. But heavy metal cognoscenti in both camps quickly realized that in their hands was a potentially crucial stepping stone for the future development of heavy metal. Sure enough, so challenging and groundbreaking were its contents that the album soared over most everyone's unsuspecting heads, its eventual gold sales status only achieved via Columbia Records' massive promotional muscle and nearly three years of intensive touring on the band's part. Consequently, early believers were pleasantly surprised when 2001's long awaited follow-up, Toxicity met with instant popular acceptance, skyrocketing up the charts toward multi-platinum success. Yet, for the most part, it also managed to retained SOAD's unorthodox signature sound: so-called "nu-metal" uniquely infused with remarkable originality, including angular riffs, jagged rhythms, and oblique lyrics splattered all over the place. Like its predecessor, Toxicity seems utterly chaotic upon first listen, but things quickly begin falling into place, thanks to a number of small refinements, not least of which is a more generous melody, obviously pre-meditated, but rarely overdone. In turn, this immediacy greatly improved the album's chances at radio -- case in point, first single "Chop Suey!," a track so potent not even September 11, nor mainstream radio's ensuing self-imposed, politically correct attempt at self-censorship, could tear from the airwaves (despite its none-too-discreet lyrics about suicide), the song's surprising success was reminiscent of another left-field hit from a decade earlier, Faith No More's "Epic" (hear its piano-led outro for proof). And sure enough, from the unexpected false starts of "Prison Song" to the relatively mellow conclusion, the band's heightened commercial sensibility continues to joust with their inherently quirky songwriting. The excellent title track, "Forest," and "Science" are among the most accessible standouts from an incredibly diverse set, the likes of which SOAD's inferior nu-metal peers could only hope to emulate. Lyrically, it's simply no contest. Whether tackling typical rock subject matter like drug abuse ("Needles") and groupies ("Psycho"), or embarking on inscrutable Dadaist gems like "Jet Pilot" and "Shimmy," co-songwriters Daron Malakian and Serj Tankain sound like are the bastard children of Frank Zappa and Slayer. And while sub-Rage Against the Machine political invective (unfairly attributed to their Armenian heritage) remains an integral part of the band's creative makeup (e.g. "Deer Dance," "Atwa"), Toxicity's approach is much more cautious in this regard than that of their incendiary debut. In conclusion, when a band takes this many left turns, you'd expect them to start going in circles sooner rather than later, but this is not the case with System of a Down. Hands down one of 2001's top metal releases, Toxicity may well prove to be a lasting heavy metal classic to boot.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Synchronicity

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101

Young Jeezy
A sequence of events juggled the release dates for Boyz N da Hood's first album (issued on Bad Boy) and Young Jeezy's own widely distributed breakout (issued on Def Jam). Boyz N da Hood hit the Top Five the week it was released, and Young Jeezy -- the group's most visible member -- wound up releasing Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 only a month later. His prominence has come hard and fast (and not without a fair share of controversy), but in truth, he has been active in the underground since the mid-'90s. More a businessman than a traditional MC, his boasts are either deliberately pronounced or mush-mouthed and are often stamped with a druggy "Aaaayy!" Far from the South's best MC, he nonetheless makes up for it with his storytelling ability and obvious desire to inspire hard work, even if the "million dollar dreams" are followed by "federal nightmares." His mentality is almost permanently stuck on monetary gain, whether he's talking about moving "white" (his nickname is Snowman) or doing whatever necessary to keep up appearances. A definite product of the South, it's apparent throughout Let's Get It that his claim of being raised by the group UGK and the label No Limit is no joke. Like Boyz N da Hood, the album was made as if crunk never happened. Partial list of benefactors: Mannie Fresh, Trick Daddy, Young Buck, Bun B, Akon, Shawty Redd, ColliPark, Jazze Pha.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Late Registration

Kanye West

Wide Open Spaces

Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks spent the first half of the '90s toiling away on the independent bluegrass circuit, releasing three albums on small labels, before sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison decided to revamp their sound in 1995, adding Natalie Maines as their lead singer and, in the process, moving the group away from bluegrass and toward a major label with Sony/Columbia's revived Monument Records imprint. All of this seems like the blueprint for a big pop crossover move and, to be sure, their 1998 major-label debut Wide Open Spaces was a monumental success, selling over ten million copies and turning the group into superstars, but the remarkable thing about the album is that it's most decidedly not a sell-out, or even a consciously country-pop record. To be sure, there are pop melodies here, but this isn't a country-pop album in the vein of Shania Twain, a record that's big on style and glitz, designed for a mass audience. Instead, Wide Open Spaces pulls from several different sources -- the Chicks' Americana roots, to be sure, but also bits of the alt country from kd lang and Lyle Lovett, '70s soft rock (any album that features versions of songs by J.D. Souther and Bonnie Raitt surely fits this bill), even the female neo-folkies emerging on the adult alternative rock stations at the end of the decade. In other words, it hit a sweet spot, appealing to many different audiences because it was eclectic without being elitist but they also had a true star in Natalie Maines, whose powerful, bluesy voice gave these songs a compelling center. Maines was versatile, too, negotiating the twists and turns of these songs without a hitch, easily moving from the vulnerability of "You Were Mine" to the snarl of "Give It Up or Let Me Go." The same goes for the Dixie Chicks and Wide Open Spaces as a whole: they are as convincing on the sprightly opener "I Can Love You Better" or the bright, optimistic title song as they are on the breezy "There's Your Trouble" as they are on the honky tonk shuffle of "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" and the rocking swagger of "Let 'Er Rip." It's a remarkably wide range and it's effortlessly eclectic, with the Dixie Chicks bringing it all together with their attitude and understated musicality -- as debuts go (and this does count as a debut), they rarely get better than this.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

It's Dark And Hell Is Hot

DMX
Just as rap music was reaching its toughest, darkest, grimmest period yet, following the assassinations of 2Pac and Biggie in the late '90s, along came DMX and his fellow Ruff Ryders, who embodied the essence of inner-city machismo to a tee, as showcased throughout the tellingly titled It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. Unlike so many other hardcore rappers who are more rhetorical than physical, DMX commands an aggressive aura without even speaking a word. He showcases his chiseled physique on the arresting album cover and trumpets his animalistic nature with frequent barking, growling, and snarling throughout the album. He also collaborates with muscular producers Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease, who specialize in slamming synth-driven beats rather than sample-driven ones. Further unlike so many other hardcore rappers from the time, DMX is meaningful as well as symbolic. He professes an ideology that stresses the inner world -- characterized by such qualities as survival, wisdom, strength, respect, and faith -- rather than the material one that infatuates most rappers of his time. It helpes that his album includes a few mammoth highlights ("Ruff Ryders' Anthem," "Get at Me Dog," "Let Me Fly," and "I Can Feel It") as well as a light, mid-album diversion ("How's It Goin' Down"). The long running length of It's Dark and Hell Is Hot does wear you down after a while, since nearly every song here sans "How's It Goin' Down" hits hard and maintains the album's deadly serious attitude. Even so, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot is a tremendous debut, laying out DMX's complex persona with candor, from his faith in God to his fixation with canine motifs, and doing so with dramatic flair.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Born In The U.S.A.

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

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Simon & Garfunkel
Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of the biggest-selling albums of its decade, and it hasn't fallen too far down on the list in years since. Apart from the gospel-flavored title track, which took some evolution to get to what it finally became, however, much of Bridge Over Troubled Water also constitutes a stepping back from the music that Simon & Garfunkel had made on Bookends -- this was mostly because the creative partnership that had formed the body and the motivation for the duo's four prior albums literally consumed itself in the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. And, ironically, it all grew out of events that went back more than two years, to the hookup between Simon & Garfunkel and film director Mike Nichols on the movie The Graduate. The creative contact between Paul Simon and Nichols had yielded one monster hit ("Mrs. Robinson") and some rejections from the film ("Overs," "Punky's Dilemma"), and also a soundtrack that had greatly broadened the duo's audience; and it had introduced would-be actor Art Garfunkel to Nichols. And, suddenly, Garfunkel was involved in the shooting of Nichols' Catch-22, which took up most of his time for the better part of a year, and Simon was left to his own devices during his partner's absences. Thus, the close collaboration between the two, which had existed in this phase of their lives since 1965, was frayed not just at the edges but down to its very core. The very idea of a concept album such as Bookends had been, even if a concept could have been suggested, was thus out of the question.

As it turned out, absent anything as powerful as the sustained first side of Bookends, much of the resulting material here is fine, albeit relatively lightweight: "Baby Driver" with its Jan & Dean-style harmonies and early-'60s rock & roll beat; the upbeat "Cecelia," utilizing the largest array of percussion ever heard on a Simon & Garfunkel song; the live rendition of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love"; and the reggae beat of "Why Don't You Write Me." Moreover, it was possible to discern a recurring theme on Bridge Over Troubled Water, but this was much more a reflection of the condition of the partnership than a conscious artistic statement -- where Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme had been built around middle-class teen and post-teen zeitgeist, and Bookends focused on the joys and dangers of growing old, Bridge Over Troubled Water had songs that quietly betrayed the fissures in the partnership: "The Only Living Boy in New York" was Simon's personal account of the isolation he felt on a creative level over Garfunkel's extended absence; "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" was a memorial to the architect, written for Garfunkel to sing, but it could just as easily be thought of as a farewell to his longtime collaborator Garfunkel (who had aspirations of being an architect); even "Why Don't You Write Me" was a song about lack of communication that seemed to slot into the division between the two partners.

Bridge Over Troubled Water had a lot more in common with the Beatles' Let It Be album than with any prior Simon & Garfunkel release -- except that Simon, in reaching to the bottom of his song bag, along with Garfunkel and producer/engineer Roy Halee, in applying their arranging skills in this dire situation, came up with a transcendent album. The title track was the best example; by some accounts, Garfunkel had insisted that Simon sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on first hearing it. The piece evolved in their hands, however, and ultimately benefited from what many regard as the best recorded vocal performance of Garfunkel's career. Similarly, "The Only Living Boy in New York" was an obviously deeply personal song, but Garfunkel managed to add an extraordinary accompaniment to the composer's lead vocal. And there were places where the two were on the same page from the get-go, such as "El Condor Pasa." The overall effect was perhaps the most delicately textured album to close out the 1960s from any major rock act. Comparing other farewells of the same era, either to partnerships or the decade, the Beatles' Let It Be was a flawed, threadbare representation of the group's work, and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, which marked the last musical contributions of Brian Jones and their last new work for their old label, was a nasty, unsettling statement. Bridge Over Troubled Water, at its most ambitious and bold, on its title track, was a quietly reassuring album; at other times, it was personal yet soothing, and at other times, it was just plain fun.

The public in 1970 -- a very unsettled time politically, socially, and culturally -- embraced it, and whatever mood they captured, the songs matched the standard of craftsmanship that had been established on the duo's two prior albums. Between the record's overall quality and its four hits -- "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "The Boxer" (which had been recorded and released prior to the LP), "El Condor Pasa," and "Cecelia," which kept the duo on the AM airwaves for months -- the album held the number one position for two and a half months and spent years on the charts, racking up sales in excess of five million copies. It also managed to cross over between segments of the audience that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others seldom reached -- siblings from teens to early thirties bought it, and teenagers and their parents alike loved different parts of the record. The songs were widely covered by artists in virtually every category, and the entire LP's worth of material was rethought in a jazz vein by Paul Desmond on A&M Records. The irony was that for all of the record's and the music's appeal, the duo itself -- the partnership -- ended in the course of creating and completing the album. [In 2004, Sony International released a version of this recording with deluxe packaging as part of their Vinyl Classics line]

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Confessions (Special Edition)

Usher
Usher was a star with three number one hits before Confessions, but its critical and commercial success meant the music industry couldn’t dismiss him as a pop creation modeled after Michael Jackson. The album's conceit is a soap opera in which he cheats on his girlfriend and gets the other woman pregnant. He handles this tabloid affair with grace, portraying himself as a likable guy in a sticky situation instead of an unrepentant dog. Wisely, he sets aside this theme after twenty minutes and refocuses on R&B jams like "Bad Girl," a kinetic number built around handclaps, guitar riffs and his delightfully rhythmic falsetto. Usher runs out of good material before Confessions ends, but the best songs, including "Burn" and the teen love duet "My Boo" with Alicia Keys, more than make up for the weaker cuts.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Songs About Jane

Maroon 5
Maroon 5 have certainly come a long way since their days in the indie outfit Kara's Flowers. After the band's demise in 1999, frontman Adam Levine surrounded himself with New York City's urban hip-hop culture and found a new musical calling. Maroon 5 was born and their debut album, Songs About Jane, illustrates an impressive rebirth. It's groovy in spots, offering bluesy funk on "Shiver" and a catchy, soulful disposition on "Harder to Breathe." "Must Get Out" slows things down with its dreamy lyrical story, and Levine is a vocal dead ringer for Men at Work's Colin Hay. Don't wince -- it works brilliantly. Songs About Jane is love-drunk on what makes Maroon 5 tick as a band. They're not as glossy as the Phantom Planet darlings; they've got grit and a sexy strut, personally and musically. It's much too slick to cross over commercially in 2002, but it's good enough for the pop kids to take notice.

MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi

Born This Way

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga's drama club ambition to marry rock & roll rebellion with her disco beats turns Born This Way into Like a Prayer by way of Bat Out of Hell. She knowingly recontextualizes Madonna for a postmodern collage, the sly similarities offering tangible reminders that Gaga is the heir to the diva throne. Her true gift is her considerable dexterity at delivering the basics. “Marry the Night” glistens with a neon pulse, “Born This Way” has a giddiness to its self-importance, “Judas” turns “Alejandro” into towering gothic disco, she achieves her metal-disco fusion on “Bad Kids,” and she even shows vulnerability on “Yoü and I.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Dirt

Alice In Chains
Dirt is Alice in Chains' major artistic statement and the closest they ever came to recording a flat-out masterpiece. It's a primal, sickening howl from the depths of Layne Staley's heroin addiction, and one of the most harrowing concept albums ever recorded. Not every song on Dirt is explicitly about heroin, but Jerry Cantrell's solo-written contributions (nearly half the album) effectively maintain the thematic coherence -- nearly every song is imbued with the morbidity, self-disgust, and/or resignation of a self-aware yet powerless addict. Cantrell's technically limited but inventive guitar work is by turns explosive, textured, and queasily disorienting, keeping the listener off balance with atonal riffs and off-kilter time signatures. Staley's stark confessional lyrics are similarly effective, and consistently miserable. Sometimes he's just numb and apathetic, totally desensitized to the outside world; sometimes his self-justifications betray a shockingly casual amorality; his moments of self-recognition are permeated by despair and suicidal self-loathing. Even given its subject matter, Dirt is monstrously bleak, closely resembling the cracked, haunted landscape of its cover art. The album holds out little hope for its protagonists (aside from the much-needed survival story of "Rooster," a tribute to Cantrell's Vietnam-vet father), but in the end, it's redeemed by the honesty of its self-revelation and the sharp focus of its music. [Some versions of Dirt feature "Down in a Hole" as the next-to-last track rather than the fourth.]

Steve Huey, Rovi

The Fame

Lady Gaga
Fueled by heavy dance tracks and popping electronic beats, The Fame, the first album by the glamorous Lady Gaga, is a well-crafted sampling of feisty anti-pop in high quality. Already a famous female DJ in her own right, Lady Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta) pulls out all the stops on The Fame, injecting hard-hitting synthesizers and crashing slicks and grooves. From its opening track until it closes, The Fame fails to come up short on funky sounds to amuse fans of this dance genre. However, what carries this album to new heights is the combination of voice and the razor sharp lyrics which accompany it. Gaga's sound is no different than that of Gwen Stefani, however her coy delivery of each cooing note gives the album a laid-back slick feeling of ease, which meshes with the dramatic beats that back the album up. In addition, the lyrics which feed the album, especially on the desirous "Paparazzi" or the boastful, vain "Beautiful Dirty Rich," salt and pepper the album with a nasty, club-friendly feeling of fun and feistiness that an excellent, well-produced dance album should have. The lyrics are not any more deliciously entertaining than they are on the title track, which feeds the listener savory lines like "Give me something I wanna be, retro glamour, Hollywood yes we live for the fame." There are a couple of missteps, such as the rock-tinged non-dance piano track "Again Again" (which would be a nice track had it not been sandwiched between such meaty ones). Plus, the The Fame has it's "ballad," however the breezy "Eh, Eh" doesn't hold water on this album; rather, it feels dry and lifeless, something which holds this album back; however, the infectious "Poker Face" and title track which follow it successfully rejuvenate the vibe on the album for its second half. Gaga has stated that the eighth track on each release of the album will be different, however "Money Honey," is a galactic number susceptible to comparisons to the album's lead single, the well-known summer smash hit "Just Dance." That's not necessarily a bad thing, since the lead single is a powerhouse of dance waves and infectiously produced beats, but the album doesn't always stand out as definitive, even though it's consistently fresh and innovative. As the album winds down, the tracks start to slow down, but Gaga's frosty tones and sickly hooks end the album satisfyingly. Ultimately, the beats need to end up repeating themselves in places, but in the long-haul, The Fame is in excellent standing for establishing Lady Gaga with a solid career.

Matthew Chisling, Rovi

Superunknown

Soundgarden
Soundgarden's finest hour, Superunknown is a sprawling, 70-minute magnum opus that pushes beyond any previous boundaries. Soundgarden had always loved replicating Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffs, but Superunknown's debt is more to mid-period Zep's layered arrangements and sweeping epics. Their earlier punk influences are rarely detectable, replaced by surprisingly effective appropriations of pop and psychedelia. Badmotorfinger boasted more than its fair share of indelible riffs, but here the main hooks reside mostly in Chris Cornell's vocals; accordingly, he's mixed right up front, floating over the band instead of cutting through it. The rest of the production is just as crisp, with the band achieving a huge, robust sound that makes even the heaviest songs sound deceptively bright. But the most important reason Superunknown is such a rich listen is twofold: the band's embrace of psychedelia, and their rapidly progressing mastery of songcraft. Soundgarden had always been a little mind-bending, but the full-on experiments with psychedelia give them a much wider sonic palette, paving the way for less metallic sounds and instruments, more detailed arrangements, and a bridge into pop (which made the eerie ballad "Black Hole Sun" an inescapable hit). That blossoming melodic skill is apparent on most of the record, not just the poppier songs and Cornell-penned hits; though a couple of drummer Matt Cameron's contributions are pretty undistinguished, they're easy to overlook, given the overall consistency. The focused songwriting allows the band to stretch material out for grander effect, without sinking into the pointlessly drawn-out muck that cluttered their early records. The dissonance and odd time signatures are still in force, though not as jarring or immediately obvious, which means that the album reveals more subtleties with each listen. It's obvious that Superunknown was consciously styled as a masterwork, and it fulfills every ambition.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Recovery

Eminem

Infinity On High

Fall Out Boy
A funny thing happened to Fall Out Boy on the road to Infinity on High: they got famous. Before 2005's From Under the Cork Tree they were just another pop-punk unit from suburban Chicago happy to break even at shows with gas money. Next thing anyone knew, they were headlining arenas and being heralded as the new face of pop-punk alongside their peers in My Chemical Romance. It was a position that never seemed to rest easy with the guys, and because of this, Infinity on High seems a bit conflicted. Fall Out Boy wants to charm everyone here. They want to prove themselves to critics by moving past the confines of emo, allowing a love of all things pop to come right to the forefront. Yet they also want to resonate directly with those day-one fans who may long for the intimate VFW shows of yesterday. This disparity makes points of the record seem awkward, and for the first time, the band appears to over-think things. Pete Wentz's lyrics are oftentimes resentful, full of fame-induced angst, and really emphasize his need to drive home his position that stardom has not changed the band. So it's in weird contrast to these sentiments that Jay-Z is the one opening the album and calling out haters who said FOB would fail. The glorification of their celebrity abruptly switches into Patrick Stump stating (pleading?) that the band is not buying into the hype -- nor do they even want it. "Make us poster boys for your scene/But we are not making an acceptance speech" is defiant, and when his sweet voice asserts, "Crowds are won and lost and won again/But our hearts beat for the diehards," it's clear that FOB still holds their roots close. But this is contradicted by the fact that the album's majority is far and away their poppiest material to date, more pop/rock than pop-punk, which inevitably means more interesting to those who know them just as that "Dance, Dance" band with the media-whoring bassist, Pete Wentz.

So the results are hit-and-miss. The Maroon 5-ish "I'm Like a Lawyer..." is glaringly one of the Babyface-produced tracks, and with a vocal hook uncomfortably close to Phil Collins' "Groovy Kind of Love," it plays like the guys were the ruffled house band for a prom. It's ill-fitting, a notion that continues in cuts like the soft rock piano of "Golden" and the airy "The (After) Life of the Party." But on the flip side, the fizzy urban-pop nugget "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" dances around double-time hardcore choruses and backing choral singers with dizzying precision and infectious results, while dramatic gospel flair excellently lines "Hum Hallelujah." Stump's vocal control and agility is incredible; he truly brings songs alive in a way uniquely his own, and it's a toss-up as to whether he or drummer Andrew Hurley should get this record's gold star. So it's not to say the pop explosion that is Infinity on High is all bad. Even the studio extravagances -- multiple producers (Babyface and Butch Walker handle a few outside Neil Avron) and decadent layers of horns, string sections, and choirs -- don't detract from its overall enjoyability. Yet unlike My Chemical Romance, who knew exactly what they wanted in the grand theatrics of 2006's Welcome to the Black Parade and completely went for it without apology, Fall Out Boy is at odds. Previously, they could easily skip around with pop baggage, hardcore tension, cunning wordplay, and infectious melodies without losing their edge. Now they just seem too self-aware. Don't misunderstand: once Infinity on High sinks in, it's indeed a fun record. But for a band that was once so self-assured and able to utilize its talents so compellingly, the album is regrettably haphazard. Fall Out Boy may hate people who "dissect us 'til this doesn't mean a thing anymore," but in trying to appeal to all of them, they lost something unique along the way.

Corey Apar, Rovi

The Blueprint

JAY-Z

Third Stage

Boston

Best Of Number Ones

Janet Jackson

Remain In Light

Talking Heads
The musical transition that seemed to have just begun with Fear of Music came to fruition on Talking Heads' fourth album, Remain in Light. "I Zimbra" and "Life During Wartime" from the earlier album served as the blueprints for a disc on which the group explored African polyrhythms on a series of driving groove tracks, over which David Byrne chanted and sang his typically disconnected lyrics. Remain in Light had more words than any previous Heads record, but they counted for less than ever in the sweep of the music. The album's single, "Once in a Lifetime," flopped upon release, but over the years it became an audience favorite due to a striking video, its inclusion in the band's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, and its second single release (in the live version) because of its use in the 1986 movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, when it became a minor chart entry. Byrne sounded typically uncomfortable in the verses ("And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"), which were undercut by the reassuring chorus ("Letting the days go by"). Even without a single, Remain in Light was a hit, indicating that Talking Heads were connecting with an audience ready to follow their musical evolution, and the album was so inventive and influential, it was no wonder. As it turned out, however, it marked the end of one aspect of the group's development and was their last new music for three years.

William Ruhlmann, 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

One Of The Boys

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Tragic Kingdom

No Doubt
Released in 1995, the multi-platinum Tragic Kingdom not only transformed Anaheim's No Doubt into a household name, it also helped make ska-punk from the sprawling Cali 'burbs the hottest commodity since sliced bread. Nearly every song here, from the hard-bopping "Just a Girl" to the Blondie-tinged "Happy Now?," is sickly-sweet ear candy. A powder keg combo of riot grrrl defiance and Mouseketeers' radiant innocence, Gwen Stefani exudes so much charisma and straight-up sex appeal that the singer would've been a pop star even had she joined a struggling polka band from Youngstown, Ohio.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

E=MC²

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

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Get Rich Or Die Tryin'

50 Cent
Probably the most hyped debut album by a rap artist in about a decade, most likely since Snoop's Doggystyle (1993) or perhaps Nas' Illmatic (1994), 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' certainly arrived amid massive expectations. In fact, the expectations were so massive that they overshadowed the music itself -- 50 becoming more of a phenomenon than simply a rapper -- so massive that you had to be skeptical, particularly given the marketing-savvy nature of the rap world. Even so, Get Rich is indeed an impressive debut, not quite on the level of such landmark debuts as the aforementioned ones by Snoop or Nas -- or those by Biggie, Wu-Tang, or DMX either -- but impressive nonetheless, definitely ushering in 50 as one of the truly eminent rappers of his era. The thing, though, is that 50 isn't exactly a rookie, and it's debatable as to whether or not Get Rich can be considered a true debut (see the unreleased Power of the Dollar [1999] and the Guess Who's Back? compilation [2002]). That debate aside, however, Get Rich plays like a blueprint rap debut should: there's a tense, suspenseful intro ("What Up Gangsta"), an ethos-establishing tag-team spar with Eminem ("Patiently Waiting"), a street-cred appeal ("Many Men [Wish Death]"), a tailor-made mass-market good-time single ("In da Club"), a multifaceted tread through somber ghetto drama (from "High All the Time" to "Gotta Make It to Heaven"), and finally three bonus tracks that reprise 50's previously released hits ("Wanksta," "U Not Like Me," "Life's on the Line") -- in that precise order. In sum, Get Rich is an incredibly calculated album, albeit an amazing one. After all, when co-executive producer Eminem raps, "Take some Big and some Pac/And you mix them up in a pot/Sprinkle a little Big L on top/What the f*ck do you got?" you know the answer. Give Em (who produces two tracks) and Dr. Dre (who does four) credit for laying out the red carpet here, and also give 50 credit for reveling brilliantly in his much-documented mystique -- from his gun fetish to his witty swagger, 50 has the makings of a street legend, and it's no secret. And though he very well could be the rightful successor to the Biggie-Jigga-Nas triptych, Get Rich isn't quite the masterpiece 50 seems capable of, impressive or not. But until he drops that truly jaw-dropping album -- or falls victim to his own hubris -- this will certainly do.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah

Nirvana
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is the second posthumous Nirvana record, an attempt to capture Nirvana at the peak of its powers on stage. That doesn't necessarily mean all the band's best-known songs are here -- "Come as You Are," "All Apologies," and "About a Girl" are all absent -- but it does mean that this is the closest representation to what Nirvana sounded like on-stage. It may not be perfect and it's a little scattershot due to its varied source material (the tapes were recorded anywhere between 1989 and 1994), but it's still a terrific record, thanks to a sharp selection of performances and a set list that relies on B-sides, album tracks, and album favorites, highlighting the group at its best. It's not necessary, but it still finds a great band in top form.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Don't Be Cruel

Bobby Brown
Don't Be Cruel was to Bobby Brown what Control was to Janet Jackson -- a tougher, more aggressive project that shed his "bubblegum" image altogether and brought him to a new artistic and commercial plateau. With "My Prerogative" and the title song, Brown became a leader of new jack swing -- a forceful, high-tech blend of traditional soul singing and rap/hip-hop that's also associated with Guy and Brown's New Edition colleagues, Bell Biv DeVoe. Brown had been a strong advocate of rap since his days with New Edition, and on Cruel, he did even more rapping than before. But for all the tough-mindedness he exhibited on his new jack hits, the charismatic Bostonian hadn't lost his love of sentimental, old-fashioned R&B romanticism -- and he definitely excels in that area on his hits "Every Little Step," "Roni," and "Rock Wit'cha." Much of Cruel was produced by the ubiquitous production/songwriting duo L.A. Reid and Babyface, who've often been accused (and rightly so) of taking a formulaic, cookie-cutter approach to R&B. But here, their work is never less than inspired.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Slippery When Wet

Bon Jovi
Slippery When Wet wasn't just a breakthrough album for Bon Jovi; it was a breakthrough for hair metal in general, marking the point where the genre officially entered the mainstream. Released in 1986, it presented a streamlined combination of pop, hard rock, and metal that appealed to everyone -- especially girls, whom traditional heavy metal often ignored. Slippery When Wet was more indebted to pop than metal, though, and the band made no attempt to hide its commercial ambition, even hiring an outside songwriter to co-write two of the album's biggest singles. The trick paid off as Slippery When Wet became the best-selling album of 1987, beating out contenders like Appetite for Destruction, The Joshua Tree, and Michael Jackson's Bad.

Part of the album's success could be attributed to Desmond Child, a behind-the-scenes songwriter who went on to write hits for Aerosmith, Michael Bolton, and Ricky Martin. With Child's help, Bon Jovi penned a pair of songs that would eventually define their career -- “Living on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” -- two teenage anthems that mixed Springsteen's blue-collar narratives with straightforward, guitar-driven hooks. The band's characters may have been down on their luck -- they worked dead-end jobs, pined for dangerous women, and occasionally rode steel horses -- but Bon Jovi never presented a problem that couldn’t be cured by a good chorus, every one of which seemed to celebrate a glass-half-full mentality. Elsewhere, the group turned to nostalgia, using songs like “Never Say Goodbye” and “Wild in the Streets” to re-create (or fabricate) an untamed, sex-filled youth that undoubtedly appealed to the band’s teen audience. Bon Jovi wasn't nearly as hard-edged as Mötley Crüe or technically proficient as Van Halen, but the guys smartly played to their strengths, shunning the extremes for an accessible, middle-of-the-road approach that wound up appealing to more fans than most of their peers. “It’s alright if you have a good time,” Jon Bon Jovi sang on Slippery When Wet’s first track, “Let It Rock,” and those words essentially served as a mantra for the entire hair metal genre, whose carefree, party-heavy attitude became the soundtrack for the rest of the ‘80s.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Wish

The Cure
On the surface, Wish sounds happier than Disintegration, and the sunny British Invasion hooks of the hit single "Friday I'm in Love" certainly seem to indicate that the record is a brighter affair than its predecessor. Dig a little deeper and the album reveals itself to be just as tortured, and perhaps more despairing. Granted, the sound of the record, with its jangling guitars and simple arrangements, is more immediately accessible than the epic gloom of Disintegration, but nearly every song finds Robert Smith wracked with depression. Unfortunately, the even-handed production makes the record sound very similar, so it is less compelling than it might have been, but there are a handful of gems ("High," "A Letter to Elise," "Wendy Time," "Friday I'm in Love") that make the record worthwhile.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi