Halftime All-Stars

Just The Way You Are

Bruno Mars

Give It Away

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Unorthodox Jukebox

Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars has said that Unorthodox Jukebox represents his freedom, and it lives up to its title as Mars moves through genres and eras, veering mostly into retro soul. The follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2010 debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans opens with the '80s pop-influenced "Young Girls" and lead single "Locked Out of Heaven." "I got a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker and I'm feeling like I'm 30 feet tall," Mars indulges on "Gorilla," an animalistic sex jam. "Natalie" and "Money Make Her Smile," about a gold-digger and stripper respectively, follow in that gritty tone, while the retro-disco "Treasure" paired with "Moonshine" play out like a cinematic love story.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Purple Rain

Prince & The Revolution

Sunday Bloody Sunday

U2

Greatest Hits

Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Greatest Hits is a compelling listen, culling tracks from the band's 1989 breakthrough, Mother's Milk, to its melodic 2002 release, By the Way. In some ways, one could view this as the best of the John Frusciante years, charting most of the band's work with the talented guitarist after the death of original member Hillel Slovak. The tracks here are all hits, including such stellar singles as "Give It Away," "Under the Bridge," and Frusciante's first single after his phoenix-like resurrection from heroin addiction, "Scar Tissue." It should be noted, though, that as a Warner-issued hits collection such fan favorites as "Taste the Pain" and the touchstone antidrug anthem "Knock Me Down" -- both from the 1989 EMI release Mother's Milk -- aren't included. (Similarly, nothing from the Chili Peppers' rambunctious early efforts -- including 1984's Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1985's Freaky Styley, and 1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan -- appears on this hits collection.) Nonetheless, Greatest Hits still portrays the band as one of the most consistently brilliant groups of its generation. Helping to paint this picture are such solid cuts as the group's searing, albeit overplayed, 1989 cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" as well as its rarely available addition to the Coneheads movie soundtrack, "Soul to Squeeze." Not surprisingly, "My Friends" is the sole cut to make it from the band's disappointing one-off effort with Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, One Hot Minute. Throw in two new tracks ("Fortune Faded" and "Save the Population") that easily match the quality of the material collected here, and you've got one of the most consistently listenable Chili Pepper releases since Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For fans who gave up after Frusciante left the band, Greatest Hits is the perfect reintroduction.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Like A Prayer

Madonna

Paint It, Black

The Rolling Stones

F*ck You

CeeLo Green

Bawitdaba

Kid Rock

Band On The Run

Paul McCartney & Wings

Boom Boom Pow

The Black Eyed Peas

Doo-Wops & Hooligans

Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars was riding high when his first album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, was released in 2010. Indeed, the first single from the album, the lushly romantic "Just the Way You Are," was topping the singles chart. For the album, Mars worked with a large team of songwriters and producers, but still managed to come up with a record that sounded like it was written and recorded on a warm, sleepy summer Sunday afternoon. The intimate and relaxed feel can be traced to two factors: one, Mars mostly played all the instruments himself, and two, his voice is the kind of smooth instrument that slips into your ear like honey. Most of the tracks on Doo-Wops capture this laid-back groove.

The Very Best Of Prince

Prince
Even geniuses (maybe especially geniuses) are taken for granted, not seen as geniuses, or only appreciated in small doses. Which is a grandiose way of saying that, no matter how partisans may complain, there are many listeners out there that don't want to delve into the deliriously rich catalog of Prince and would rather spend time with a single disc of all the hits -- especially since the first singles compilation was botched, spread too thin over two discs and sequenced as if it were on shuffle play. That doesn't mean that 2001's The Very Best of Prince is perfect, even if it is a better hits overview than its predecessor. First of all, Prince had so many hits, and so many of them were so good, that 17 tracks couldn't possibly summarize everything great. After all, this doesn't have Top Ten hits like "Delirious," "Pop Life," "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," or "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (or the number one "Batdance," for that matter, continuing Batman being unofficially written out of his discography), nor does it have such great second-tier hits as "Take Me With U" and "Mountains," or B-sides like "Irresistible Bitch" and "Erotic City," let alone album tracks. What is here are the big songs -- "1999," "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "Kiss," and so on -- all presented in their single edits. And, frankly, that's enough to make this a dynamite collection, perfect for those that just want one Prince disc, and a good, solid listen of some of his best. Besides, this trumps both Hits discs by including "Money Don't Matter 2 Night," his best single never to reach the Top 10.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Hot Rocks 1964-1971

The Rolling Stones
This two-LP/two-CD set of Hot Rocks, 1964-1971 is both a lot more and a bit less than what it seems. It is seven years' worth of mostly very high-charting -- and all influential and important -- songs, leaving out some singles in favor of well-known album tracks, and in the process, giving an overview not just of the Rolling Stones' hits but of their evolving image. One hears them change from loud R&B-inspired rockers covering others' songs ("Time Is on My Side") into originators in their own right ("Satisfaction"); then into tastemakers and style-setters with a particularly decadent air ("Get Off of My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown"); and finally into self-actualized rebel-poets ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Midnight Rambler") and Shaman-like symbols of chaos. On its initial release, Hot Rocks sold well, not only as a unique compilation but also as a panorama of the '60s. The only flaw was that it didn't give a good look at the Stones' full musical history, ignoring their early blues period and their psychedelic era. There are also some anomalies in Hot Rocks' history for the collector -- the very first pressings included an outtake of "Brown Sugar" featuring Eric Clapton that was promptly replaced; and the original European CD version, issued as two separate discs on the Decca label, was also different from its American counterpart, featuring a version of "Satisfaction" mastered in stereo, and putting the guitars on separate channels for the first time. Those musicologist concerns aside, this is still an exciting assembly of material.

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Born To Run

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen's make-or-break third album represented a sonic leap from his first two, which had been made for modest sums at a suburban studio; Born to Run was cut on a superstar budget, mostly at the Record Plant in New York. Springsteen's backup band had changed, with his two virtuoso players, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini Lopez, replaced by the professional but less flashy Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. The result was a full, highly produced sound that contained elements of Phil Spector's melodramatic work of the 1960s. Layers of guitar, layers of echo on the vocals, lots of keyboards, thunderous drums -- Born to Run had a big sound, and Springsteen wrote big songs to match it. The overall theme of the album was similar to that of The E Street Shuffle; Springsteen was describing, and saying farewell to, a romanticized teenage street life. But where he had been affectionate, even humorous before, he was becoming increasingly bitter. If Springsteen had celebrated his dead-end kids on his first album and viewed them nostalgically on his second, on his third he seemed to despise their failure, perhaps because he was beginning to fear he was trapped himself. Nevertheless, he now felt removed, composing an updated West Side Story with spectacular music that owed more to Bernstein than to Berry. To call Born to Run overblown is to miss the point; Springsteen's precise intention is to blow things up, both in the sense of expanding them to gargantuan size and of exploding them. If The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was an accidental miracle, Born to Run was an intentional masterpiece. It declared its own greatness with songs and a sound that lived up to Springsteen's promise, and though some thought it took itself too seriously, many found that exalting.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Number 1's

Stevie Wonder
Issued as an ecological package that is renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable, Number 1's collects Stevie Wonder's biggest hits beginning with 1963's timeless and irresistible "Fingertips, Pt. 2" and running straight through to "So What the Fuss" (which features Prince on guitar) from Wonder's 2005 comeback album, A Time 2 Love. In between are such enduring touchstones as 1965's "Uptight (Everything Is Alright)," the gritty "Living for the City" and the edgy, uplifting "Higher Ground" from 1973's Innervisions, the wise and pop-elegant "Sir Duke" from 1976's sprawling Songs in the Key of Life, and the reggae-tinged "Master Blaster (Jammin')" from 1980. It all adds up to a nearly 40-year survey of a master songwriter and musician whose unerring ear managed to produce and land songs on the charts that drew from every corner of the pop universe, from soul and R&B to funk, jazz, and reggae, all done with joy, hope, and an underlying intelligence and wisdom that are all too rare in popular culture. For a casual collection that provides all the big radio hits from the start of his career to date, this Stevie Wonder set will be all that many listeners will ever need. The wonder (pun intended), of course, is that what's here is just the tip of the iceberg, and there's so much more when one turns to Wonder's actual albums, particularly the ones from the mid- to late '70s. Throw this in the car and keep it there. It'll take you to some nice places, down memory lane and back again, with songs full of heart and soul.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

The Joshua Tree

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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

Dangerously In Love

Beyoncé
Beyoncé Knowles was always presented as the star of Destiny's Child -- which probably shouldn't be a big surprise since her father managed the group. So it was a natural step for her to step into the diva spotlight with a solo album in 2003, particularly since it followed on the heels of her co-starring role in Mike Myers' 2002 comedy hit, Austin Powers in Goldmember. Still, a singer takes a risk when going solo, as there's no guarantee that her/his star will still shine as bright when there's nobody to reflect upon. Plus, Survivor often sounded labored, as Knowles struggled to sound real. The Knowles clan -- Beyoncé and her father Mathew, that is (regrettably, Harry Knowles of "Ain't It Cool" is no relation) -- were apparently aware of these two pitfalls since they pull off a nifty trick of making her debut album, Dangerously in Love, appeal to a broad audience while making it sound relatively easy. Sometimes that ease can translate into carelessness (at least with regard to the final stretch of the album), with a prolonged sequence of ballads that get stuck in their own treacle, capped off by the unbearably mawkish closer, "Gift from Virgo," where she wishes her unborn child and her husband to be like her daddy. (Mind you, she's not pregnant or married, she's just planning ahead, although she gets tripped up in her wishes since there's "no one else like my daddy.") Although these are a little formless -- and perhaps would have been more digestible if spread throughout the record -- they are impeccably produced and showcase Knowles' new relaxed and smooth delivery, which is a most welcome development after the overworked Survivor. Knowles doesn't save this voice just for the ballads -- she sounds assured and sexy on the dance numbers, particularly when she has a male counterpart, as on the deliriously catchy "Crazy in Love" with her man Jay-Z or on "Baby Boy" with 2003's dancehall superstar, Sean Paul. These are the moments when Dangerously in Love not only works, but sounds like Knowles has fulfilled her potential and risen to the top of the pack of contemporary R&B divas. It's just too bad that momentum is not sustained throughout the rest of the record. About halfway through, around the astrological ode "Signs" with Missy Elliott, it starts crawling through its ballads and, while listenable, it's not as exciting as the first part of the record. Still, the first half is good enough to make Dangerously in Love one of the best mainstream urban R&B records released in 2003, and makes a strong case that Knowles might be better off fulfilling this destiny instead of reuniting with Destiny.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Immaculate Collection

Madonna
On the surface, the single-disc hits compilation The Immaculate Collection appears to be a definitive retrospective of Madonna's heyday in the '80s. After all, it features 17 of Madonna's greatest hits, from "Holiday" and "Like a Virgin" to "Like a Prayer" and "Vogue." However, looks can be deceiving. It's true that The Immaculate Collection contains the bulk of Madonna's hits, but there are several big hits that aren't present, including "Angel," "Dress You Up," "True Blue," "Who's That Girl," and "Causing a Commotion." The songs that are included are frequently altered. Everything on the collection is remastered in Q-sound, which gives an exaggerated sense of stereo separation that often distorts the original intent of the recordings. Furthermore, several songs are faster than their original versions and some are faded out earlier than either their single or album versions, while others are segued together. In other words, while all the hits are present, they're simply not in their correct versions. Nevertheless, The Immaculate Collection remains a necessary purchase, because it captures everything Madonna is about and it proves that she was one of the finest singles artists of the '80s. Until the original single versions are compiled on another album, The Immaculate Collection is the closest thing to a definitive retrospective. [The Japanese Gold edition is printed on a high quality gold disc]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake

The 20/20 Experience - 2 of 2

Justin Timberlake

My Life

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

Stanton Swihart, Rovi

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Devil Without A Cause

Kid Rock
It's unlikely that even Kid Rock believed he had an album as good as Devil Without a Cause in him. Nobody else believed it, that's for sure. But he didn't just find the perfect extention of his Beastie and Diamond Dave infatuations here, he came up with the great hard rock album of the late '90s -- a fearlessly funny, bone-crunching record that manages to sustain its strength, not just until the end of its long running time, but through repeated plays. The key to its sucesss is that it's never trying to be a hip-hop record. It's simply a monster rock album, as Twisted Brown Trucker turns out thunderous, funky noise -- and that's funky not just in the classic sense, but also in a Southern-fried, white trash sense, as he gives this as much foundation in country as he does hip-hop. But what really reigns supreme on Devil Without a Cause is a love of piledriving, classic hard rock, not just that of hometown hero Bob Seger, but Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Halen, and faceless arena rock ballads. The Kid makes it all shine with rhymes so clever and irresistible that it's impossible not to quote them. For all its modernity -- Rock's rapping, the titanic metallic guitars, Joe C's sideshow sidekick, the plea to "get in the pit and try to love someone" -- this is firmly in the tradition of classic hard rock, and it's the best good-time hard rock album in years (certainly the best of the last three years of the '90s).

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

janet.

Janet Jackson
After Control and Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson had quite a lot to live up to. Anyone who expected Jackson to top Rhythm Nation -- her crowning achievement and an incredibly tough act to follow -- was being unrealistic. But with janet., she delivered a respectable offering that, although not as strong as either Control or Nation, has many strong points. As before, Jackson is joined by the prolific Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis team, and their input is valuable on everything from the angry "This Time" and the hypnotic "That's the Way Love Goes" to the '60s-flavored "What'll I Do" and the sociopolitical "The New Agenda" (which features Public Enemy leader Chuck D). But perhaps the CD's most exciting track is "Funky Big Band," which samples jazz legend Lionel Hampton's 1938 big-band classic "I'm in the Mood for Swing" with thrilling results. There are a few throwaways (including the lightweight ballad "Again"), but despite its shortcomings, janet. is a welcome addition to her catalog.

Number 1's

James Brown
It's kind of a shame that the first compilation Universal/Polydor released in the wake of James Brown's Christmas 2006 death -- not counting Hip-O Select's ongoing complete singles series, which was in the works prior to the Godfather of Soul's demise -- is an entry in their shabbily assembled budget-line series Number 1's. Not that the music on the comp is bad -- hardly. This is a very good roundup of 19 of the most familiar hits, almost all dating from 1965's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" on, with a heavy concentration on late-'60s and early-'70s funk, including Fred Wesley & the JB's "Doing It to Death." Some may complain that there aren't many of the early King singles here -- only "Try Me" -- no "Think," "I'll Go Crazy," "Night Train" or others, but for many casual fans, this is the JB they know best and it's an affordable way to get all the biggest songs in one place. The only drawback is the flimsy cardboard packaging. Sure, it may be 100-percent biodegradable, but it feels disposable -- which is a bit bothersome in normal cases, but since this is the first James Brown disc after his death, it's hard not to wish that it felt a little bit more substantial.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Mother's Milk

Red Hot Chili Peppers
A pivotal album for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1989's Mother's Milk turned the tide and transformed the band from underground funk-rocking rappers to mainstream bad boys with seemingly very little effort. Mother's Milk brought them to MTV, scored them a deal with Warner Brothers, and let both frontman Anthony Kiedis and the ubiquitous Flea get back out into a good groove following the death of co-founding member Hillel Slovak. With a new lineup coalescing around the remaining duo with new drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante, and with producer Michael Beinhorn again behind the boards, the band took everything that The Uplift Mofo Party Plan hinted at, and brought it fully to bear for this new venture. If anyone doubted the pulsating power that leapt from the blistering opener, "Good Time Boys," it took only a few bars of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' outrageous, and brilliant, interpretation of the Stevie Wonder classic "Higher Ground" to prove that this new lineup was onto something special. Wrapping up with the aptly titled and truly punked-out "Punk Rock Classic" and the band's own punched-up tribute to "Magic Johnson," Mother's Milk was everything the band had hoped for, and a little more besides. Effortlessly going gold as "Knock Me Down" and "Taste the Pain" careened into the charts, the album not only set the stage for the band's Blood Sugar Sex Magic domination, it also proved that funk never died; it had just swapped skins. [The 2003 reissue of Mother's Milk includes six bonus tracks, five of which are previously unreleased, including the "Salute to Kareem" demo and a live version of "Crosstown Traffic."]

Amy Hanson, Rovi

Pink Friday

Nicki Minaj
By the time 2010 rolled around, debuts like Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday could still fall into the “highly anticipated” category, but the reasoning was different. Two years of strong mixtapes and guest appearances meant the hip-hop faithful already knew this sometimes dirty debutante could take that gutsy Lil' Kim style to another level, and that both the single and the full-length format were at her command. The only question left is how this versatile artist would present herself to the general public, and the answer is a Gwen Stefani-meets-Baz Luhrman-meets-Young Money-type affair that both dazzles and disappoints. Feed off the production, the great musical ideas, and Minaj’s keen sense of her surroundings, and Pink Friday is an outstanding success. It’s chock-full of new wave textures and diva attitude, creating the kind of atmosphere where will.i.am stops over while you tell the haters to kill themselves over a “Video Killed the Radio Star” sample (“Check It Out”). More grand moments come when Kanye West and Minaj mack together on the great, Simple Minds-sampling “Blazin,” or when “Your Love” waltzes out of the speakers with a unique brand of hood majesty, but when “Dear Old Nicki” comes round with “In hindsight, I loved your rawness and I loved your edge,” Minaj suggests that her growth as an artist requires the sacrificing of all Trina-like qualities. Confusingly, the key track, “Romans Revenge,” finds her winning while acting as savage as ever, standing up to Eminem -- who is in gross mode -- and literally roaring like a tiger to get the job done. This is the Nicki the mixtape crowd fell in love with, and you only need check out 2009’s mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty for examples of how the Barbie (read: pop and R&B) and the bitch (read: hip-hop) sides of Minaj can be sensibly presented together. In the end, Pink Friday is an ambitious, glossy stunner if fashion week is your favorite time of year, but Minaj didn’t earn her diva status this way. Longtime fans familiar with her underground work won’t even consider this her debut, just an extravagant coming-out party, the kind where the invite mentions “no sneakers or athletic apparel.” [The Deluxe Edition included three bonus tracks, including the smash hit "Super Bass."]

David Jeffries, Rovi

Let It Bleed

The Rolling Stones
Mostly recorded without Brian Jones -- who died several months before its release (although he does play on two tracks) and was replaced by Mick Taylor (who also plays on just two songs) -- Let It Bleed extends the rock and blues feel of Beggars Banquet into slightly harder-rocking, more demonically sexual territory. The Rolling Stones were never as consistent on album as their main rivals, the Beatles, and Let It Bleed suffers from some rather perfunctory tracks, like "Monkey Man" and a countrified remake of the classic "Honky Tonk Woman" (here titled "Country Honk"). Yet some of the songs are among their very best, especially "Gimme Shelter," with its shimmering guitar lines and apocalyptic lyrics; the harmonica-driven "Midnight Rambler"; the druggy party ambience of the title track; and the stunning "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which was the Stones' "Hey Jude" of sorts, with its epic structure, horns, philosophical lyrics, and swelling choral vocals. "You Got the Silver" (Keith Richards' first lead vocal) and Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," by contrast, were as close to the roots of acoustic down-home blues as the Stones ever got.

Richie Unterberger, Rovi

The Lady Killer

Cee Lo Green
“Fuck You,” the feel-joyously-spiteful hit of summer 2010, should cast a large shadow across Cee Lo Green's third proper solo album. The singer’s biggest solo single to date, it’s the best form of novelty hit -- a side-splitting surface supported with a durable underbelly, combining Millie Jackson-level lyrical frankness with a knockout throwback-soul production. Even without the presence of “Fuck You,” The Lady Killer would remain a thoroughly engrossing album. Bookended by a recurring spy-film theme, the set is loaded with a potent mix of Green’s singular voice -- meaning his graceful bellow and his oddball personality -- and knowing, hefty soul arrangements sheathed in hip-hop vigor, often embellished with strings, horns, and substantive background vocals. As with 2004’s Soul Machine, some of the best songs here share titles with R&B classics. The testimonial “Wildflower” switches between corny/winking couplets (“Sexy is in season/Share your sunshine with me”) and amusing metaphor play (“Hold her with both my hands/Put her right on my table when I get her home”). The infectiously beaming “Fool for You,” served with a choppy gait, carries as much pride as Ray Charles' “ A Fool for You.” “I Want You,” yet another song that punches and swirls, isn’t as straightforward as its title suggests; it’s about pressing the reset button on a dying relationship. The final full song, “No One’s Gonna Love You,” "is" a cover -- not of the S.O.S. Band, but Band of Horses. It’s a faithful version that humbly spotlights the versatility of a fascinating talent. Just as importantly, it’s a suitable way to follow “Old Fashioned,” a tear-the-roof-down ballad drenched in reverb and sweat.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies)

The Black Eyed Peas
The Black Eyed Peas make effective pop/crossover music, but they aren't content to be disposable pop stars; they also want to write anthemic, vital songs that speak for a new generation. And so comes The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies). For every hyper-sexualized, by-the-numbers track like the hit single "Boom Boom Pow," there are message songs like "Now Generation," which begins, in cheerleader fashion, with the lines: "We are the now generation! We are the generation now!/This is the now generation! This is the generation now!" Led by will.i.am's production, which is continually the best thing about the album, the Black Eyed Peas move even farther away from hip-hop into the type of inspirational dance-pop that has become ripe for advertisements and marketing opportunities, including "I Gotta Feeling" ("I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night") and "Party All Night" ("If we could party all night and sleep all day, and throw all of our problems away, my life would be ea-say"). Granted, there's nothing here as embarrassing as "My Humps," and the production is a shade better than previous material from the group or Fergie solo (although still not as good as will.i.am solo ventures), but The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies) becomes a mess of pop/dance/rap crossover.

John Bush, Rovi

U218 Singles

U2
U2's first two greatest-hits albums neatly divided themselves by decade, with the first covering the '80s and the second summing up the '90s. Their third hits comp, 2006's U218 Singles, is at once more ambitious and more concise, offering an overview of their first 26 years on a single disc comprised of 18 tracks -- and since two of those are new songs, that leaves just 16 songs to tell their whole story. That's not much space for a band with a career as lengthy and ambitious as U2, so it's inevitable that some painful cuts have been made. Nothing from October, Zooropa or Pop is here, and unless you're buying various import editions that have "I Will Follow" as a bonus track, there's nothing from Boy, either. There's only one cut each from The Unforgettable Fire and Rattle and Hum -- and bucking conventional wisdom, none of their three widely accepted masterpieces -- War, The Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby -- provide the most songs here. No, out of all their albums the one that dominates U218 Singles is All That You Can't Leave Behind, their 2000 comeback from the depths of the misguided Pop, and one of two records that they've released since their last hits compilation, The Best of 1990-2000.

The other record they've released since then is How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which provides two songs here -- or, as many as there are from War and Achtung Baby. What this means is that this compilation skews very heavily toward latter-day U2 -- eight out of 18 tracks, a full 44 percent of the collection, are from 2000 on, which means that U218 Singles presents the classicist version of the band, featuring the anthems from U2 at their peak, plus the highlights from when U2 were trying their best to "sound" like U2 at their peak. They did it quite well, of course, from both a commercial and artistic standpoint, sometimes writing songs that stood proudly alongside "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (as in "Beautiful Day") and sometimes not ("Elevation"). When it's all mixed together, it paints a portrait of a band that's a little slicker and streamlined than it often was, and it's hard not to miss the big-hearted yet moody band that made "Bad," "Gloria," and "A Sort of Homecoming," not to mention the middle-aged Euro experimentalists responsible for "Numb" and "Stay! (Faraway, So Close)," two essential components of the band that has been forced aside by the arena rock pros on display here.

Then again, U2 always were the best arena rockers of their generation, and for those who love the spectacle and sound of the band in full flight, U218 Singles serves up that side of the band quite well, along with two new entries that find the band continuing the assured, even-handed sound of Atomic Bomb: a cover of the Skids' "The Saints Are Coming," recorded with Green Day and rewritten to vaguely address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and "Window in the Skies," an anthemic pop number that relies too heavily on synth strings yet is saved by the band's sturdy songwriting and reliable performance. As such, it might not cover all the bases, but it covers enough of the major ones to be a good summary for fellow travelers who just know U2 from the radio, and it's also a good one-stop introduction to the basics for neophytes.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Singles Collection

Britney Spears
Like 2004's Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, 2009's The Singles runs 17 tracks but the selected songs result in a very different listening experience. To begin with, the five years separating the two compilations were tumultuous ones for Britney Spears, but they resulted in a clutch of hits that kept her on the charts despite all the drama, hits that firmly entrenched Britney as a dance club diva. This stretch of six singles -- "Gimme More," "Piece of Me," "Womanizer," "Circus," "If You Seek Amy," "Radar" -- along with the excellent new Max Martin-written and produced single "3" (much better than any of the three new cuts on My Prerogative), help push The Singles away from teen pop and toward pure dance-pop bliss, a shift in tone underscored by the virtual absence of ballads (the only one included is "Everytime," which in this context plays a bit as a chill-out number). In some regards, giving her early sticky bubblegum and fluffy ballads a bit of a short shrift does downplay Britney's era of dominance, but it does result in a stronger overall listen, since there are no slow patches here, just a parade of relentless hooks and rhythms that wound up defining the sound of a decade.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Country Grammar

Nelly
By the time of Country Grammar's release in summer 2000, the album's title track had become a major hit single for the previously unknown St. Louis rapper Nelly, who was making his national debut. In particular, the song's tongue-twisting chorus is downright infectious: "I'm goin down down baby, yo' street in a Range Rover/Street sweeper, baby, cocked ready to let it go/Shimmy shimmy cocoa what? Listen to it pound/Light it up and take a puff, pass it to me now" -- or something like that. There are many more tongue-twisting singalong moments like this on Country Grammar, such as "Ride wit Me" and "E.I.," enough to make the album an engaging overall listen, despite some pedestrian rapping at times. More than anything, Nelly's knack for writing -- and singing -- such infectious hooks makes Country Grammar an exceptional album for its time, one that transcends regional styles like Dirty South and is universal in its (Midwestern?) pop-rap appeal. Some of the credit should go to producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson, who showcases a lot of talent over the course of Country Grammar.

Jason Birchmeier, 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

Sorry For Party Rocking

LMFAO
Although the duo LMFAO boasted Euro-pop synths and unmissable riffs well before their hit with David Guetta, "Gettin' Over You," it definitely didn't hurt to be featured on a world-wide smash that spent quality time at number one in France and the U.K. Their second album, Sorry for Party Rocking, arrives at exactly the right time and includes exactly the right mix of energy and humor, plus a surprising amount of sincerity. Before its release, the trailer single, "Party Rock Anthem," had already nested high in the charts of multiple countries, and its presence here confirms that LMFAO are no longer a novelty act. Granted, they lead with humor -- the intro "Rock the Beat II" and the title track -- but from there, they focus more on nightclub sloganeering and high-life living, with tracks like "Champagne Showers," "Best Night," and "All Night Long." If any of this sounds like the Black Eyed Peas, there's a good reason; aside from having will.i.am onboard as executive producer (again), the duo are definitely on the trail of soundtracking your best club night out, and considering the parade of hits (and sacks of money) that the Black Eyed Peas have produced, it's no wonder. The interesting part is that LMFAO are much better at this type of thing than BEP themselves. First, they replace blind enthusiasm with a wink of an eye that none of this music business is serious. (Dancing is supposed to be fun, right?) Second, the clumsy delivery of BEP is radically improved by Sky Blu and Red-Foo's innate ability to write good anthems -- and with the lyrics to carry them over. And despite a few features for high rollers, they keep the focus on themselves, even carrying "Take It to the Hole" for a few minutes before Busta Rhymes arrives with his guest spot. All in all, it's clear that chart-driven pop circa the second decade of the millennium rarely gets much better than LMFAO here.

John Bush, Rovi

Greatest Hits

The Who
Released in advance of the Who’s half-time appearance at the 2010 Superbowl, the 2009 Greatest Hits reworks the 2004 collection Then and Now: 1964-2000, retaining the basic structure of that compilation (including its then-new bonus track “Real Good Looking Boy”), trimming its 20 tracks down to 19 -- “I’m a Boy,” “See Me, Feel Me,” and “5:15” traded for “Pictures of Lily” and “Eminence Front,” the new “Old Red Wine” swapped for “It’s Not Enough” from their 2006 comeback Endless Wire -- but otherwise not changing much about the basic character of the album. This collection remains a solid overview of the Who’s basics, containing every one of the huge hits from “My Generation” to “Who Are You,” all sequenced chronologically. There are no surprises and no need to get this if you already own one of the many Who collections released over the years, but if Townshend and Daltrey’s Superbowl set piques some interest in procuring a Who hits album, this will surely satisfy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Arular

M.I.A.

...Hits

Phil Collins
If Hits seems a little inadequate, even though it weighs in at 16 tracks, that's because Phil Collins had such a long, productive run. Also, to casual listeners (and possibly even some fans), it's hard to tell which singles are by Genesis and which ones are solo cuts. So, it's almost a certainty that listeners will find something missing from this disc -- and not just because Genesis cuts are absent, but because there's not enough space to fit all of Collins' solo hits, especially since the compilers decided to include a couple of lesser, latter-day hits at the expense of some earlier, bigger ones, while adding his non-LP cover of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" to entice hardcore fans. Thus, there are only 13 hits, which means some other big hits and good songs are absent -- "I Missed Again," "I Don't Care Anymore," "Don't Lose My Number," "Do You Remember?" are all MIA. A few of these omissions are quite regrettable, but in the end, Hits is nevertheless a representative and pretty entertaining collection. The sequencing is not chronological, so it doesn't develop a nice flow (although "Take Me Home" is admittedly the ideal closer), but the chief strength of this collection is that it puts all of the big hits - including "Easy Lover," "Against All Odds," "In the Air Tonight," "Sussudio," "One More Night" and "Separate Lives" -- in one place. No, it's not perfect -- and it's hard not to wish that it was -- but Hits still contains the majority of Collins' solo smashes, and that alone makes it a nice addition to his catalog.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Eliminator

ZZ Top
ZZ Top had reached the top of the charts before, but that didn't make their sudden popularity in 1983 any more predictable. It wasn't that they were just popular -- they were "hip", for God's sake, since they were one of the only AOR favorites to figure out to harness the stylish, synthesized grooves of new wave, and then figure out how to sell it on MTV. Of course, it helped that they had songs that deserved to be hits. With "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Legs," they had their greatest set of singles since the heady days of Tres Hombres, and the songs that surrounded them weren't bad either -- they would have been singles on El Loco, as a matter of fact. The songs alone would have made Eliminator one of ZZ Top's three greatest albums, but their embrace of synths and sequencers made it a blockbuster hit, since it was the sound of the times. Years later, the sound of the times winds up sounding a bit stiff. It's still an excellent ZZ Top album, one of their best, yet it sounds like a mechanized ZZ Top thanks to the unflaggingly accurate grooves. Then again, that's part of the album's charm -- this is new wave blues-rock, glossed up for the video, looking as good as the omnipresent convertible on the cover and sounding as irresistible as Reaganomics. Not the sort the old-school fans or blues-rock purists will love, but ZZ Top never sounded as much like a band of its time as they did here. [Based on Rhino's 2008 Deluxe reissue of ZZ Top's classic 1983 LP Eliminator, the trio didn't have much in the way of unreleased songs left in the vaults, but that doesn't mean this double-disc set isn't useful. This set has a DVD devoted to the album's landmark videos -- "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," and "TV Dinners," all staples of early MTV -- adding a couple of live performances for good measure. Live performances are also the key to the expansion of the CD, as the seven bonus tracks contain two mixes of "Legs" -- a 7" edit and a 12" mix -- and five live cuts from the Eliminator tour. These live performances aren't as good as the sleek, gleaming finished album, as the group had neither learned to expertly play with a drum machine on-stage or figure out how to do these songs without electronics, but that just winds up highlighting what an exceptionally well-crafted, imaginative production the original Eliminator was and for that, this deluxe edition is worth exploring.]

Motown #1's

Various Artists

Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade Of Hits

Christina Aguilera
When Christina Aguilera began her decade of hits back in 1999 she was instantly overshadowed by her fellow New Mickey Mouse Club alumni Britney Spears, who was first out of the gate with Baby One More Time and wound up outselling Christina and every other teen pop act this side of *NSync in the first years of the new millennium. As the 2000s rolled on, Aguilera slowly, surely began to eclipse Spears. Brit-Brit's downward spiral and arrested artistic development seemed all the stronger when compared to Xtina's restless risks and increasingly assured musical vision, a progression that's evident on Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits. Arranged chronologically from 1999's "Genie in a Bottle" to 2007's "Candyman," Keeps Gettin' Better has a narrative momentum: the squeaky-clean pop singer shatters her image via hyper-sexualized dance tracks which left her free to get crazier, campier, and better, turning into a pop diva that truly deserves that title. Keeps Gettin' Better hints at the future with two excellent new songs (the title track and "Dynamite") along with remakes of "Genie in a Bottle" and "Beautiful,"" all done in a chilly electro style that suggests a Blackout if Britney were in control and knew what she was doing, but what is remarkable about the collection is that Christina's past holds up, with the candy-pop of "Genie," "What a Girl Wants," and "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" still sounding sweet, "Beautiful" sounding richly melancholy, and "Ain't No Other Man" and "Candyman" wickedly funny, knowing blasts of retro-swing. She may have started out in Britney's shadow, but Keeps Gettin' Better proves that no other teen pop singer of her era has a better track record than Christina and if the new songs are any indication, the title of this hits comp is no lie either.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Band On The Run

Paul McCartney & Wings

II

Boyz II Men
With their second album, II, Boyz II Men assured their place at the top of the charts, as well as history. "I'll Make Love to You," the album's first single, stayed on the top of the charts for over two months, only to be unseated by "On Bended Knee," the album's second single. Not surprisingly, II is a carefully constructed crowd pleaser, accentuating all of the finest moments from their hit debut. While there are some high-energy dance tracks, the album's main strength is its slower numbers, where the group's vocals soar.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Shania Twain

#1's

Destiny's Child
An honest title for this disc would be "Several #1's, a Bunch of Top Tens, and a Couple New Songs", but #1's obviously has a greater -- if false -- ring to it. #1's isn't formatted any differently than scores of other anthologies packaged in time for the holiday shopping season, but it's also timely in that it comes after four Destiny's Child albums, all of which produced a handful of hits and roughly twice as much filler. Few problems could be had with the track selection. Containing each of Destiny's Child's charting singles, with the exception of "Brown Eyes" and the inconsequential "8 Days of Christmas," the disc reaffirms that Destiny's Child released some of the biggest R&B singles of the late '90s and early 2000s. For instance, you didn't have to be a fan of R&B, or even "music", to cross paths with the likes of "Survivor" -- an overblown song with a form of success that had more to do with its mega-anthem quality and opportunistic title (the show of the same title was extremely popular at the time). As strategic as Destiny's Child were, they still have enough substance in their discography to place them as one of the best R&B groups of the '90s and early 2000s. Though they didn't follow the previous top female R&B group, TLC, with nearly as much brilliance or finesse, they've left behind several singles that will be remembered for something other than their mainstream success. [A DualDisc version of the album was also released.]

What's The 411?

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige's debut album, What's the 411?, was a revolution in disguise. Like her new jack predecessors, Blige combined R&B with hip-hop, but unlike Guy and Bobby Brown, her music was more seductive and sly. More importantly, she sounds grittier and more real than most new jack swingers or female R&B vocalists. Blige can slip between singing and rapping with ease, which is partially the reason why What's the 411? is so successful. It doesn't hurt that her collaborators, from Grand Puba to Sean "Puffy" Combs, help construct backing tracks that are both melodic, relentlessly funky, and sexy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Disney's Greatest Volume 1

Various

Britney Jean

Britney Spears

Wildflowers

Tom Petty
Under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin, Tom Petty turns in a stripped-down, subtle record with Wildflowers. Coming after two albums of Jeff Lynne-directed bombast, the very sound of the record is refreshing; Petty sounds relaxed and confident. Most of the songs are small gems, but a few are a little too laid-back, almost reaching the point of carelessness. Nevertheless, the finest songs here ("Wildflowers," "You Don't Know How It Feels," "It's Good to Be King," and several others) match the quality of his best material, making Wildflowers one of Petty's most distinctive and best albums.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Stripped

Christina Aguilera
According to Christina Aguilera, the title of her second album, Stripped, refers to her emotions and not her body, but the topless photograph of her on the cover suggests otherwise. Most things about Stripped suggest sex, actually, since Xtina -- as she calls herself in a handful of interviews accompanying the release of the album -- never hesitates to put her body, her piercings, and recently liberated sexual beliefs on display throughout her hyper-sexual, convoluted sophomore effort. Like any diva, Christina believes her trials and tribulations are inherently more fascinating than anybody else's and, like any diva, she has an inflated sense of self-importance, defiantly strutting on the "Stripped Intro" that she's "sorry you can't define me/sorry I break the mold." What she's referring to is anybody's guess, since she hasn't exactly defied expectations since her last album -- releasing a Christmas album and a Spanish-language record of your debut ain't exactly breaking the mold: it "is" the mold. Plus, Stripped clearly has its origins in the sound of two of Christina's teen pop contemporaries -- the teasing sexiness of Britney Spears and the wonderful, gonzo dance-rock confessionals of Pink, who truly did break the mold with M!ssundaztood. Since Aguilera spent so much time working on the album, tearing through a seemingly countless number of producers, she seems desperate to not just catch-up with these two, but surpass them in the sex and confessions, breaking it down so they become the same thing, while adding a strong hip-hop undercurrent throughout all the songs. And the end result is utterly bizarre, surpassing Mariah Carey's Glitter as the modern-day standard for musical immolation while rivaling The Teaches of Peaches in its sheer carnality. Where Peaches always is in control of her sexuality, using it as a weapon and a joke in equal measures, Christina is overwhelmed by the reaction of others to her sexuality, putting it on equal ground with her voice, which remains a remarkably powerful instrument, especially since she's toned down the scale-running histrionics from her debut. If she's mastered her vocals, she's still desperately searching for her artistic voice, placing too much emphasis on club and street-level R&B, which fit her poorly (why was "Dirrty," a non-song that requires less range than the slinky sexiness of "I'm a Slave 4 U," the first single?), when she needs full-blown songs. There are some here, though, most notably the Linda Perry collaboration "Beautiful," which was rush-released as a second single, but the ceaseless 70-minute running time and seemingly endless 20 songs mean that individual moments are lost and the big picture remains. And that big picture is that of an artist who has grown up too fast, while the sound is that of an artist who's given too much freedom too early and hasn't yet figured out what to do with it.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Press Play

Diddy

Matangi

M.I.A.

Greatest Hits

New Kids On The Block
If Greatest Hits doesn't seem as fun as it should be, that's because the New Kids on the Block's material has dated, even though it, in many ways, set the template for the teen pop of the late '90s/early 2000s. Max Martin used Maurice Starr's formula, but he writes better songs -- only "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" and "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" stand the test of time as good pop singles, but the rest are pretty much triumphs of recording and the form. Also, the sequencing doesn't play to their strengths, failing to gain much momentum as it plays. This still is recommended as the first pick, since it does have all of NKOTB's hits on one disc, but it's still sort of a shock that this doesn't play as trashy fun, the way it does in memory -- or the way Milli Vanilli's music now does. [A bonus tracks version was released in 2008.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Clint Black
Clint Black's 16-song Greatest Hits is a comprehensive collection, featuring eight number one hits -- including "Killing Time," "Where Are You Now," and "Nobody's Home" -- four additional hits, plus four new songs ("Like the Rain," "Half Way Up," "Cadillac Jack Favor," and a live version of the Eagles' "Desperado"). Though the collection is missing a handful of essential tracks, it still provides a convincing argument that Black was one of the finest new traditionalist singers of the early '90s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Very Best Of Sting And The Police

Sting