Grammy Greats

Tears In Heaven

Eric Clapton

Respect

Aretha Franklin

Jesus Walks

Kanye West

I Will Wait

Mumford & Sons

It Was A Very Good Year

Frank Sinatra

Clocks

Coldplay

Hotel California

Eagles

The Heist

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Pure Heroine

Lorde

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

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

Unapologetic (Explicit Version)

Rihanna
One year after Talk That Talk, Rihanna revs up her reign with some of her most entrancing material to date on seventh album Unapologetic. Led by hit single "Diamonds," she ventures through a variety of ballads, party tracks and collaborations: "Loveeeeeee Song" with Future, "Stay" with Mikky Ekko, "Numb" featuring Eminem, and then there's Chris Brown jamming out like Michael Jackson on "Nobody's Business"—a song you might be mad at if it weren't so good. "Jump," which borrows the chorus from Ginuwine's "Pony," finds RiRi bold as ever: "When you fuck them other girls I bet they be wondering why you always call my name"; while on "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary," she breaks free from the sentiment of the album's title and is most daring as she repents: "You took the best years of my life/...I pray that love don't strike twice."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Magna Carta... Holy Grail

JAY Z

The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake

Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend
Following the success of their sophomore album, Contra, Vampire Weekend released their highly anticipated third full-length, entitled Modern Vampires of the City. The record had been kept tightly under wraps since writing began in late 2011, and the four-piece discreetly hit the studio with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (We Are Scientists, Plain White T's, Usher) in their native New York. Lead single "Diane Young" illustrates the group in full flow, interjecting a rasping bassline and trashy drums to their crisp indie rock sound.

Scott Kerr, Rovi

True Believers

Darius Rucker

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

The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars

13 (Deluxe Version)

Black Sabbath
13 is the 19th studio album from heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, arriving nearly 20 years after 1995's Forbidden. Produced by Rick Rubin (Slayer, Metallica) and featuring the vocals of Ozzy Osbourne for the first time on a Black Sabbath studio album since 1978's Never Say Die!, 13 is a blistering return that includes the single "God Is Dead?"

To Be Loved

Michael Bublé
To Be Loved is the eighth studio album from Canadian crooner Michael Bublé. Featuring a mix of classic covers ("You Make Me Feel So Young," "Have I Told You Lately," "To Love Somebody") and special guest appearances from Reece Witherspoon, Bryan Adams, and the Puppini Sisters, this is a charming return to form for the popular singer and will surely delight his legions of fans. It also includes the original composition "It's a Beautiful Day."

Aneet Nijjar, Rovi

Clarity

Zedd
In the span of a few years, Anton Zaslavski was inspired by Justice to make electronic dance music, reached out to Skrillex and remixed "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," became an in-demand producer of remixes and original material, and signed to mainstream label Interscope. His remixes for the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga, combined with production for Justin Bieber's Believe and singles like "The Anthem," "Shave It," and "Spectrum," made the German musician, still in his early twenties, a rising star in EDM and pop. Zaslavski's rapid ascent says more about his talent and creativity than the lack of skill and imagination required to make dance music. He was the drummer in a metalcore band, but he has definitely found his calling here. Clarity's lone pre-Interscope track is "Shave It," retitled "Shave It Up," made more musical with an all-strings coda, and yet shortened to a brisk 3:11. The song's grand and extended conclusion makes an early-in-the-album statement, however ostentatious, that Zaslavski can compose circles around the majority of EDM producers and do so in a concise fashion. He also knows how to construct an album. This plays out like it was developed and arranged for the sake of repeated listening rather than a quick fix for listeners in need of a rush. That said, there are plenty of peak moments that reflect the immediacy and desperation of adolescent relationships, like the stadium-ready title song (featuring Louisa Rose Allen, aka Foxes) and the fully developed modern pop of "Spectrum" (fronted in a boyish, bright-eyed manner by Matthew Koma). The instrumentals tend to be relatively restrained, but most of them are more attractive than the songs featuring big-name vocalists Ryan Tedder and Ellie Goulding. Zaslavski's not quite in a field of his own yet. "Stache" shamelessly displays the producer's indebtedness to key Justice influence Daft Punk -- it might as well be subtitled "Aerodynamic 2K12" -- but he's getting there. Anyone who appreciates well-crafted dance-pop should probably keep up with him.

Blak And Blu

Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark, Jr. has been hailed by a number of critics as "the New Hendrix," which seems to be the fate of any guitarist who combines blues and rock styles at a considerable volume (particularly if they cover "Third Stone from the Sun"). While that's a blurb that may look good in Clark's press kit, it rather misses the point; Clark isn't a visionary, game-changing artist like Hendrix, but instead he's a canny singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who has learned from the past and present, fusing them into a style that's distinctive and exciting if not necessarily revolutionary. Warner Bros. is also pitching Blak and Blu as Clark's "groundbreaking debut album," when in fact it's just his major-label debut, with four indie releases preceding it, making the confidence and ambition of this set a bit less remarkable. But if Gary Clark, Jr. isn't likely to change the way we look at rock & roll or rewrite the aesthetic of the electric guitar, he "is" one of the most interesting talents to come out of the contemporary blues scene in quite some time. On Blak and Blu, most of Clark's tunes are solidly rooted in the blues, but he's also folded in hearty servings of hard rock, funk, retro-soul, and even a dash of hip-hop, and the way he lets the flavors mix is a big part of what makes this album work so well. There's an undertow of Northern Soul on the dance-friendly opener "Ain't Messin' Round," "Travis County" is a no-frills rocker that recalls the Stones in fifth gear, "The Life" finds Clark moving back and forth between singing and rapping in a streetwise tale of drug addiction, "Numb" recalls the punk blues attack of the Black Keys and the White Stripes in its fuzzed-out blast, and the title cut samples both Gil Scott-Heron and Albert King as Clark melds conscious themes with blues backdrops. While the typical modern-day guitar hero goes out of his way to throw his dexterity in your face at every turn, here Clark shows off a tougher and more primal style, and though his chops are certainly good, he keep his solos concise and his attack muscular throughout. And if his songwriting is a bit uneven, he has an inarguable talent with both lyrics and melodies, and he's a good-to-great singer, sounding soulful and honest on every cut. Blak and Blu's production (by Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo in collaboration with Clark) is too polished and processed for its own good, but if this album isn't likely to change your life, it will make an hour of it a lot more interesting, and there's no arguing that Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent strong enough to match his record company's hype.

Mark Deming, Rovi

Greater Than

Tye Tribbett

Overcomer

Mandisa

Vida

Draco Rosa
After an encounter with mortality, one tends to take stock of life with a sense of gratitude and renewed purpose. Robi Draco Rosa goes one better on Vida, his first recording after winning a battle with cancer. A quick look at the track listing, and one might think of this as a greatest-hits comp. And it is; but with so many twists and turns, and everything ambitiously re-arranged and re-recorded, that it becomes a dazzling new entry in the artist's already significant catalog. Rosa assembled a tremendous cast of guests from many parts of the Latin music world to re-record his hits. They include the current crop of Latin superstars, from Shakira and Juanes to urban artists such as Tego Calderón and Calle 13, bachata all-stars such as Romeo Santos, and even Latin rock & rollers Maná. To shrink the generational as well as genre boundaries, he also recruited legends such as Juan Luis Guerra, Rubén Blades, and José Feliciano. His contemporaries are also here: Ednita Nazario, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and even more. The overall tone of the set is simultaneously celebratory and reflective. The arrangements are full of elegant touches and surprises; they showcase the heart of these songs while opening them wider. Check the muted trumpet break in the soulful, easy-grooving "Penélope," with Maná, or the tropical breakdown in the last half of "Paraíso Prometido (Hay Que Llegar)," with Anthony. "El Tiempo Va," with Blades, is thoroughly re-imagined; it contains elements of old-school son and cancion -- with thoroughly modern production -- and features a sonorous cello, shimmering Rhodes piano, poignant 12-string, and deeply sensual singing. "Blanca Mujer," with Shakira, melds classic Latin pop, modern Latin soul, and folk forms including the ranchera, but once more, they are woven together in an entirely seductive and graceful manner. "Brujeíra," with Calderón, weaves grimy funk, hard rock, and trip-hop textures and there's a killer flamenco intro in the otherwise steamy, nocturnal, "Cómo Me Acuerdo," with Alejandro Sanz. Vida was one of the most anticipated Latin albums of 2013; it more than lives up to the anticipation. Classified as a Latin pop album, it will no doubt be acclaimed as such. But that's far from the whole story: Vida transcends genre limitations. It will appeal to virtually anyone who appreciates great songwriting, arranging, production, and, most of all, inspired performances. Rosa may have assembled this fine cast in order to celebrate life, but in doing so he has delivered what will undoubtedly be one of the best popular recordings of 2013. Period.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Treinta Días

La Santa Cecilia

Get Up!

Ben Harper With Charlie Musselwhite

My Favorite Picture of You

Guy Clark

Random Access Memories

Daft Punk
Random Access Memories is the fourth studio album from French electronic dance duo Daft Punk. The highly anticipated return of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Hoemm-Christo sees them collaborate with some legendary musical names. Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, Todd Edwards, and many more contribute to an intrinsic and retro-influenced record that heralds another fascinating chapter in the group's influential history.

Aneet Nijjar, Rovi

The Marshall Mathers LP

Eminem

The Joshua Tree

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Innervisions

Stevie Wonder
When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early '70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the '60s dream -- all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he'd written before. Two of the highlights, "Living for the City" and "Too High," make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie's narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) "Too High" is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. "Higher Ground," a funky follow-up to the previous album's big hit ("Superstition"), and "Jesus Children of America" both introduced Wonder's interest in Eastern religion. It's a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album. Wonder also made no secret of the fact that "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America's faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early '70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard.

John Bush, Rovi

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

The College Dropout

Kanye West

Unplugged (Remastered)

Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton's Unplugged was responsible for making acoustic-based music, and "Unplugged" albums in particular, a hot trend in the early '90s. Clapton's concert was not only one of the finest "Unplugged" episodes, but was also some of the finest music he had recorded in years. Instead of the slick productions that tainted his '80s albums, the music was straightforward and direct, alternating between his pop numbers and traditional blues songs. The result was some of the most genuine, heartfelt music the guitarist has ever committed to tape. And some of his most popular -- the album sold over seven million copies in the U.S. and won several Grammies.

I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Aretha Franklin
While the inclusion of "Respect" -- one of the truly seminal singles in pop history -- is in and of itself sufficient to earn I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You classic status, Aretha Franklin's Atlantic label debut is an indisputable masterpiece from start to finish. Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. While the brilliant title track remains the album's other best-known song, each cut on I Never Loved a Man is touched by greatness; covers of Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears" and Sam Cooke's "Good Times" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" are on par with the original recordings, while Aretha's own contributions -- "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," "Baby, Baby, Baby," "Save Me," and "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" -- are perfectly at home in such lofty company. A soul landmark.

Jason Ankeny, Rovi

Ultimate Santana

Santana
Billed as the first Santana compilation to span his entire career, it is true that Ultimate Santana does indeed run the gamut from 1969's "Evil Ways" to 2002's "Game of Love," but if you think that means it handles all phases of his career equally, you'd be sadly mistaken. Essentially, this 18-track set plays like a collection of highlights from his Supernatural-era comebacks, spiked with a couple of classic rock oldies -- because that's what it really is. It contains no less than "ten" superstar duets, including new numbers with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger (the streamlined and smoothed "Into the Night," which has little of Kroeger's trademark growly histrionics) and Jennifer Lopez and Baby Bash ("This Boy's Fire," a dance number where Santana seems incidental), plus a version of "The Game of Love" with Tina Turner (don't worry, the lighter, brighter, superior Michelle Branch version is here too) and plus "Interplanetary Party," which is a new band recording that sounds like a star duet. These are piled upon seven previously released duets -- including, of course, the hits "Smooth," "Maria Maria," and "The Game of Love," but also album tracks with Everlast, Steven Tyler, and Alex Band of the Calling -- with classic rock radio staples "Oye Como Va," "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways," "Europa," "Samba Pa Ti," and "No One to Depend On" for good measure. In other words, this is certainly "not" a hits disc for the fan of his earliest music, or his most adventurous music either; it's for the pop fans won over by his latter-day comeback, and for those listeners, it's the hits disc they'd want -- but for everybody else, it's better to seek out other compilations or original albums, because those paint a better picture of what Santana was all about than this crisp, clean collection of lifestyle pop.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

#1's

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

The Genius Of Ray Charles

Ray Charles
Some players from Ray Charles' big band are joined by many ringers from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands for the first half of this program, featuring Charles belting out six songs arranged by Quincy Jones. "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Deed I Do" are highlights, and there are solos by tenorman David "Fathead" Newman, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and (on "Two Years of Torture") tenor Paul Gonsalves. The remaining six numbers are ballads, with Charles backed by a string orchestra arranged by Ralph Burns (including "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'"). Charles' voice is heard throughout in peak form, giving soul to even the veteran standards.

Scott Yanow, Rovi

Babel

Mumford & Sons
Babel seems an ironic title, considering the universal quality underpinning Mumford & Sons' musical language. A lot like its predecessor, Sigh No More, the album sweeps through one grand gesture after another while striking an uncanny triangulation between The Pogues, Bruce Springsteen and Animal Collective. So adjectives like epic, earnest and demonstrative all apply to their brand of banjo-laced folk rock. Pushing everything over the top is Marcus Mumford's lyricism, laced as it is with Christian metaphor and fervor. The most potent example is "Broken Crown," a Yardbirds-flavored, solemn and baroque-like ballad detailing an embittered battle over anointment between two lovers. Gruff and desperate, Mumford declares, "Crawl on my belly till the sun goes down, I will never wear your broken crown."

Justin Farrar, Google Play

Bad

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Some Nights

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

Tim Sendra, Rovi

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

Saturday Night Fever

Bee Gees
Every so often, a piece of music comes along that defines a moment in popular culture history: Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus did this in Vienna in the 1870s; Jerome Kern's Show Boat did it for Broadway musicals of the 1920s; and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album served this purpose for the era of psychedelic music in the 1960s. Saturday Night Fever, although hardly as prodigious an artistic achievement as those precursors, was precisely that kind of musical phenomenon for the second half of the '70s -- ironically, at the time before its release, the disco boom had seemingly run its course, primarily in Europe, and was confined mostly to black culture and the gay underground in America. Saturday Night Fever, as a movie and an album, and a brace of hit singles off of it, suddenly made disco explode into mainstream, working- and middle-class America with new immediacy and urgency, increasing its audience by five- or ten-fold overnight. The Bee Gees had written "Stayin' Alive" (then called "Saturday Night"), "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," "If I Can't Have You," and "More Than a Woman" for what would have been the follow-up album to Children of the World, and they might well have enjoyed platinum-record status with that proposed album. Instead, Robert Stigwood asked them in early 1977 to contribute songs to the soundtrack of a movie that he was financing, a low-budget picture called "Tribal Rites on a Saturday Night." More out of loyalty to him than any belief in the viability of the film, they obliged; the group's involvement even survived the decision by the original director, John Avildsen, that he didn't want their music in the film -- instead, Stigwood fired him and brought in the very talented but much more agreeable John Badham, the movie's title was changed to Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees' music stayed, and the result was the biggest-selling soundtrack album in history, a 25 million copy monster whose sales, even as a more expensive double-LP, dwarfed the multi-million units sold of Children of the World and Main Course. Strangely enough, for all of the fixation of the movie and its audience on dancing, the Bee Gees' new songs were weighted equally toward ethereal ballads, which may be one reason for the soundtrack album's appeal -- it delivers what its audience expects, plus a "bonus" in the form of the soaring, lyrical romantic numbers that were, as with most ventures by the Gibb Brothers in this area, virtually irresistible. Despite the presence of other artists, Saturday Night Fever is virtually indispensable as a Bee Gees album, not just for the presence of an array of songs that were hits in their own right -- and which became the de facto soundtrack to a half-decade of pop culture history -- but because it offered the Gibb Brothers as composers as well as artists, their work recorded by Yvonne Elliman ("If I Can't Have You"), and Tavares ("More Than a Woman"), and it placed their music alongside the work of Kool & the Gang and MFSB; in essence, the layout of the soundtrack release was the culmination of everything they'd been moving toward since the Mr. Natural album. Even the presence of David Shire's "Night on Disco Mountain" and "Salsation" and Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" don't hurt, because these set a mood and a surrounding ambience for the Bee Gees' material that makes it work even better. Heard on CD as 79 minutes of music, Saturday Night Fever comes off like an idealized commercial-free radio set of late-'70s dance music (and, in that regard, the decision to leave Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" off the soundtrack album was a good one for all concerned, except Dees). The album has been out several times on CD, including a Mobile Fidelity audiophile disc that's rarer than hen's teeth and 1995 remastered, newly annotated audiophile edition from Polydor. [Rhino issued a remastered edition in 2007.]

Vol.2 ... Hard Knock Life

Jay-Z

A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Coldplay
After touring in support of their debut album, Parachutes, Coldplay was personally and professionally exhausted. Frontman Chris Martin insisted he was dry; by the time they closed their European tour in summer 2001, he hadn't written a song in months. The U.K. music press immediately pounced on the idea of Coldplay calling it quits, but somewhere lurked the beauty of "In My Place." The spirit and soul of this ballad allowed Coldplay to pull it together to make a second album. What came from such anguish and inquisition was A Rush of Blood to the Head. Coldplay has surely let it all go on this record. Acoustics are drowned out by Jon Buckland's riveting guitar work, and vocally, Martin has sharpened his falsetto, refining his haunting delivery. It's a strong album; you can feel, hear, and touch the blood, sweat, and tears behind each song, and that's exactly what Coldplay was going for. Co-producer Ken Nelson and mixer Mark Pythain (the team behind the blissful beauty of Parachutes) allowed Coldplay to make an album that's initially inaccessible, but that's what makes it intriguing. Lush melodies and a heartbreak behind the songs are there, but also a newfound confidence. From the delicate, shimmery classic "In My Place" to the piano surge of "The Scientist," Coldplay exudes an honest passion. The disco haze of "Daylight" and the love-drunk ballad "Green Eyes" are divine examples of solid lyrical arrangements, but "Politik" and the stunning guitar-driven "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" project a nervy edge to the band. Echoes of early post-punk showcase Coldplay's ballsy musicianship. Don't fret -- it's not exactly rock & roll, but Radiohead, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Smiths aren't exactly rock & roll either, and they're well loved. "Yellow" didn't follow the rock formula, but it sold well, and similarly A Rush of Blood to the Head might not instantly grab listeners, but it's not tailored that way. It pushes you to look beyond dreamy vocals for a musical inner core. Regardless of the band still being in their mid-twenties, they've made an amazing record, and if it ends up being their last, A Rush of Blood to the Head didn't sugarcoat anything. It's a bittersweet design no matter what.

MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi

Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morissette
It's remarkable that Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill struck a sympathetic chord with millions of listeners, because it's so doggedly, determinedly insular. This, after all, plays like an emotional purging, prompted by a bitter relationship -- and, according to all the lyrical hints, that's likely a record executive who took advantage of a young Alanis. She never disguises her outright rage and disgust, whether it's the vengeful wrath of "You Oughta Know" or asking him "you scan the credits for your name and wonder why it's not there." This is such insider information that it's hard to believe that millions of listeners not just bought it, but embraced it, turning Alanis Morisette into a mid-'90s phenomenon. Perhaps it was the individuality that made it appealing, since its specificity lent it genuineness -- and, even if this is clearly an attempt to embrace the "women in rock" movement in alterna-rock, Morissette's intentions are genuine. Often, it seems like Glen Ballard's pop inclinations fight against Alanis' exorcisms, as her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts. What's all the more remarkable is that Alanis isn't a particularly good singer, stretching the limits of pitch and credibility with her octave-skipping caterwauling. At its core, this is the work of an ambitious but sophomoric 19-year-old, once burned by love, but still willing to open her heart a second time. All of this adds up to a record that's surprisingly effective, an utterly fascinating exploration of a young woman's psyche. As slick as the music is, the lyrics are unvarnished and Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them. This doesn't make Jagged Little Pill great, but it does make it a fascinating record, a phenomenon that's intensely personal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Tapestry

Carole King
Carole King brought the fledgling singer/songwriter phenomenon to the masses with Tapestry, one of the most successful albums in pop music history. A remarkably expressive and intimate record, it's a work of consummate craftsmanship. Always a superior pop composer, King reaches even greater heights as a performer; new songs like the hits "It's Too Late" and "I Feel the Earth Move" rank solidly with past glories, while songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" take on added resonance when delivered in her own warm, compelling voice. With its reliance on pianos and gentle drumming, Tapestry is a light and airy work on its surface, occasionally skirting the boundaries of jazz, but it's also an intensely emotional record, the songs confessional and direct; in its time it connected with listeners like few records before it, and it remains an illuminating experience decades later.

Jason Ankeny, Rovi

Band On The Run

Paul McCartney & Wings

The Diary Of Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys
Since Alicia Keys' 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, was ever so slightly overpraised, expectations for her second album, 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys, were ever so slightly too high. Songs in A Minor not only kicked off a wave of ambitious new neo-soul songsters, it fit neatly into the movement of ambitious yet classicist new female singer/songwriters that ranged from the worldbeat-inflected pop of Nelly Furtado to the jazzy Norah Jones, whose success may not have been possible if Keys hadn't laid the groundwork with such soulful work as her hit "Fallin'." Such success at such a young age, even if deserved, can be too much too soon, since young songwriters showered with praise and riches may find it hard to see the world outside of their own cocoon. The very title of The Diary of Alicia Keys -- at once disarmingly simple and self-important -- suggests that Keys, like Furtado, took her stardom a little too seriously and felt compelled to present her worldview unfiltered, dispensing with artistic ambiguities and leaving each song as a portrait of Alicia Keys, the woman as a young artist. As she somewhat bafflingly says in her liner notes, "these songs are like my daily entrees," which likely means that these were indeed intended to play like unedited entries in a journal, a goal that she's fulfilled quite successfully, even if it does mean that the album often plays "as" a diary, leaving listeners in the role of observers instead of seeing themselves in the songs. This was a problem on Furtado's nearly simultaneously released Folklore, but Keys trumps her peer in one key way -- musically, this is a seamless piece of work, a sultry slow groove that emphasizes her breathy, seductive voice and lush soulfulness. Tonally, this is ideal late-night romantic music, even when the tempos are kicked up a notch as on the blaxploitation-fueled "Heartburn," yet beneath that sensuous surface there is some crafty, complex musicality, particularly in how Keys blurs lines between classic soul, modern rhythms, jazz, pop melodies, and singer/songwriter sensibility. It's an exceptionally well-constructed production, and as a sustained piece of sonic craft, it's not just seductive, it's a good testament to Keys' musical strengths (which can even withstand Andre Harris and Vidal Davis' irritating squeaky voice production signature on "So Simple"). What the album lacks are songs as immediate as "Fallin'" or as compelling as "A Woman's Worth," and that, combined with her insular outlook, is where Diary comes up short and reveals that it is indeed merely a second album. Such is the problem of arriving with a debut as fully formed as Songs in A Minor at such a young age -- listeners tend to expect more from the sequel, forgetting that this an artist still in her formative stages. So, those expecting another album where Keys sounds wise beyond her years will bound to be disappointed by The Diary of Alicia Keys, since her writing reveals her age in a way it never did on the debut. Yet that is a typical problem with sophomore efforts, and while this is a problem, it's one that is outweighed by her continually impressive musical achievements; they're enough to make The Diary worth repeated listens, and they're enough to suggest that Keys will continue to grow on her third album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Hotel California

Eagles
The Eagles took 18 months between their fourth and fifth albums, reportedly spending eight months in the studio recording Hotel California. The album was also their first to be made without Bernie Leadon, who had given the band much of its country flavor, and with rock guitarist Joe Walsh. As a result, the album marks a major leap for the Eagles from their earlier work, as well as a stylistic shift toward mainstream rock. An even more important aspect, however, is the emergence of Don Henley as the band's dominant voice, both as a singer and a lyricist. On the six songs to which he contributes, Henley sketches a thematic statement that begins by using California as a metaphor for a dark, surreal world of dissipation; comments on the ephemeral nature of success and the attraction of excess; branches out into romantic disappointment, and finally sketches a broad, pessimistic history of America that borders on nihilism. Of course, the lyrics kick in some time after one has appreciated the album's music, which marks a peak in the Eagles' playing. Early on, the group couldn't rock convincingly, but the rhythm section of Henley and Meisner has finally solidified, and the electric guitar work of Don Felder and Joe Walsh has arena-rock heft. In the early part of their career, the Eagles never seemed to get a sound big enough for their ambitions; after changes in producer and personnel, as well as a noticeable growth in creativity, Hotel California unveiled what seemed almost like a whole new band. It was a band that could be bombastic, but also one that made music worthy of the later tag of "classic rock," music appropriate for the arenas and stadiums the band was playing. The result was the Eagles' biggest-selling regular album release, and one of the most successful rock albums ever.

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

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

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

Blood Sugar Sex Magik

Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers' best album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik benefits immensely from Rick Rubin's production -- John Frusciante's guitar is less overpoweringly noisy, leaving room for differing textures and clearer lines, while the band overall is more focused and less indulgent, even if some of the grooves drag on too long. Lyrically, Anthony Kiedis is as preoccupied with sex as ever, whether invoking it as his muse, begging for it, or boasting in great detail about his prowess, best showcased on the infectiously funky singles "Give It Away" and "Suck My Kiss." However, he tempers his testosterone with a more sensitive side, writing about the emotional side of failed relationships ("Breaking the Girl," "I Could Have Lied"), his drug addictions ("Under the Bridge" and an elegy for Hillel Slovak, "My Lovely Man"), and some hippie-ish calls for a peaceful utopia. Three of those last four songs (excluding "My Lovely Man") mark the band's first consistent embrace of lilting acoustic balladry, and while it's not what Kiedis does best as a vocalist, these are some of the album's finest moments, varying and expanding the group's musical and emotional range. Frusciante departed after the supporting tour, leaving Blood Sugar Sex Magik as probably the best album the Chili Peppers will ever make.

Steve Huey, Rovi