Valentine's Day Classics

Let's Get It On

Marvin Gaye

Best I Ever Had

Drake

Yours Truly

Ariana Grande

The Best Of Sade

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

Eddie Huffman, Rovi

Maybe I’m Amazed (2011 Remaster)

Paul McCartney

I'll Make Love To You

Boyz II Men

Greatest Hits

James Taylor
James Taylor had scored eight Top 40 hits by the fall of 1976 when Warner Brothers marked the end of his contract with this compilation. One of those hits, the Top Ten gold single "Mockingbird," a duet with his wife Carly Simon, was on Elektra Records, part of the Warner family of labels and presumably available, but it was left off. "Long Ago and Far Away," a lesser hit (though it made the Top Ten on the easy listening charts), wasn't used either. In addition to the six hits -- "Fire and Rain," "Country Road," "You've Got a Friend," "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," and "Shower the People" -- that were included, the album featured a couple of less successful singles, "Mexico" and "Walking Man," the album track "Sweet Baby James," and three previously unreleased recordings -- a live version of "Steamroller" and newly recorded versions of "Something in the Way She Moves" and "Carolina in My Mind," songs featured on Taylor's 1968 debut album, recorded for Apple/Capitol. The result was a reasonable collection for an artist who wasn't particularly well-defined by his singles. One got little sense of Taylor's evolution from the dour, confessional songs of his first two albums to the more conventional pop songs of his sixth and seventh ones. But one did hear isolated examples of Taylor's undeniable warmth and facility for folk/country-tinged pop. By the next summer, Taylor was back in the Top Ten on Columbia, and Greatest Hits was out of date. But it remains a good sampler of Taylor's more popular early work.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Blurred Lines

Robin Thicke

Con Te Partirò

Andrea Bocelli

Adore (Edit)

PRINCE

Come Away With Me

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

David R. Adler, Rovi

Rocket Man: Number Ones

Elton John
Hard to believe, but there's never been a good single-disc overview of Elton John's biggest hits available in America until 2007's 17-track Rocket Man: Number Ones. (The British release added one track and was titled Rocket Man: The Definitive Hits.) He's had plenty of collections, including a good single-disc European set that circulated in the late '90s, but Rocket Man is the first to really offer a solid career-spanning overview as a single-disc set. Of course, even though this pulls number ones from various charts in the U.S. and U.K. there are big hits missing -- whether it's classics like "Honky Cat," which never reached the pole position in the U.S., or latter-day number ones like "I Don't Want to Go on You Like That," which did top the adult contemporary chart -- but it's hard to argue with what's here (with the possible exception of "Sacrifice," which does represent his late-'80s/early-'90s adult contemporary work but isn't one of his best hits). All the big songs -- "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Bennie and the Jets," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?," "Your Song," "Candle in the Wind" -- are here, which will satisfy the casual fan for whom this is designed. Anybody who laments the absence of "Levon," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Mama Can't Buy You Love," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," or "I'm Still Standing" should turn to another compilation: this is not the set for them. But for the fan who wants a good sampling of Elton throughout the years, this is ideal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

You're Beautiful

James Blunt

Sweet Love

Anita Baker

Fórmula Vol. 1

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

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Red River Blue (Deluxe)

Blake Shelton
Back in 2010, Blake Shelton and the shrewd A&R department at Warner Nashville gambled with a new format, releasing Shelton's singles, "Hillbilly Bone" and "All About Tonight," as separate "six pack" EPs (five other tracks filled each of them out, creating one full-length album in two installments). It paid off. Both singles were hits, and fans bought the EPs in droves. Shelton, producer Scott Hendricks, and Warner wasted no time following them up. In early 2011, Shelton was back with "Honey Bee," a single that hit the number one spot on both the Billboard and Mediabase country charts within seven weeks. It became the fastest-selling download single by a male country artist to earn a gold certification; it eventually went platinum. Shelton and Hendricks were caught by surprise with the success of the single, because they had only half an album finished. They were given two weeks to complete the rest. In the meantime, Warner followed "Honey Bee" with another album track: a rocked-up cover of contemporary Christian music songwriter Dave Barnes' "God Gave Me You." The 11-song Red River Blue reflects that rush of energy; while it never sounds panicked, it does feel just a tad rough around the edges in terms of song choices. The music is almost pure contemporary honky tonk with some balanced material woven in. Basslines are elevated in the combination love song/party anthem "Ready to Roll," while the spirit of Jerry Jeff Walker is evoked on "Get Some" (with backing vocals by Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride). "Good Ole Boys" sounds exactly like its title, and pays tribute -- intentionally or not -- to Hank Williams, Jr.'s rockist brand of country. The other tunes tunes include the summery, midtempo shuffle that is "Drink on It," and the ballads "I'm Sorry" and "Over," both of which contain tension-built-to-crescendo bridges. The album's title track closes the set, and follows "Hey," an overly formulaic rowdy party anthem. The song "Red River Blue" is Shelton at his most uncharacteristically tender. It's a broken love song fueled by accordion, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. There's enough pedal steel to take the human heart and wrench it around before Lambert's backing vocals kick in and the tune goes over the edge into tearsville. For Shelton's fans, this is a whole helping of what you like best, and it's carefully formulated to be exactly that.

My Funny Valentine

Miles Davis

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Nina Simone

The Ultimate Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross

Back to Bedlam

James Blunt
Soulful British crooner James Blunt's wistful debut infuses the listener -- in order -- with rainy-day hope, the wistful comfort of unattainable love, and finally, world-weary resignation. While his parched and effeminate falsetto recalls Gasoline Alley-era Rod Stewart with a healthy dose of Antony and the Johnsons, it's the late Elliott Smith who casts the largest shadow on Back to Bedlam. Predictable but effective four-chord guitar motifs are the chosen vehicle for the ex-Royal Armed Forces soldier, and when they connect ("Wiseman," "Goodbye My Lover," "You Are Beautiful"), it's like a "Dear John" letter from a lover who you know will remain a close but ultimately guarded friend. Opening track "High" sets a determined midtempo pace that rarely wanes -- it's like an acoustic version of "Drive" by the Cars with a Coldplay chorus. It's a pace that would sink some records, but Bedlam's perfectly rendered, under 40-minute run time ensures that the listener doesn't suffer from a melancholy overdose. Blunt recounts his harrowing experiences as part of the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo on the closer, "No Bravery," and it's a shock to hear all of the romantic lyricism that informed Bedlam up to this point reduced to "Old men kneel and accept their fate/Wives and daughters cut and raped/A generation drenched in hate," but it's damn effective -- as is the majority of this fine debut.

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

The Truth About Love

P!nk
"Blow Me (One Last Kiss)," the lead single from Pink's sixth studio album, is a catchy anthem about reaching a breaking point after "a shit day," while the chorus on "True Love" (featuring Lily Allen) plainly states: "You're an asshole but I love you." That edgy authenticity is what's made Pink's defiant pop stand apart from her peers, and on her latest album she's packing more punch than ever. While "Slut Like You" and "Here Comes the Weekend" with Eminem are weak links, Pink's performance is especially commanding on "Where Did the Beat Go?" and on ballads "Beam Me Up" and "The Great Escape." On the title track, she divulges "The truth about love is it's nasty and salty/ it's the regret in the morning/ it's the smelling of armpits"—her storytelling raw, angsty and as challenging as we expect it to be.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Let's Get It On

Marvin Gaye
After brilliantly surveying the social, political, and spiritual landscape with What's Going On, Marvin Gaye turned to more intimate matters with Let's Get It On, a record unparalleled in its sheer sensuality and carnal energy. Always a sexually charged performer, Gaye's passions reach their boiling point on tracks like the magnificent title hit (a number one smash) and "You Sure Love to Ball"; silky and shimmering, the music is seductive in the most literal sense, its fluid grooves so perfectly designed for romance as to border on parody. With each performance laced with innuendo, each lyric a come-on, and each rhythm throbbing with lust, perhaps no other record has ever achieved the kind of sheer erotic force of Let's Get It On, and it remains the blueprint for all of the slow jams to follow decades later -- much copied, but never imitated. [The 2003 reissue adds two single versions as bonus tracks.]

Jason Ankeny, Rovi

Bangerz

Miley Cyrus

So Far Gone

Drake
No doubt about it, Drake blew up big time in 2009. The one-time TV actor (from Degrassi High: The Next Generation) hooked up with Lil Wayne a couple years previously, worked the mixtape and collabo circuit hard for a spell, and then suddenly hit with the song "Best I Ever Had." The song was taken from the So Far Gone mixtape and became, arguably, the top summer jam of 2009. After a ferocious bidding war, Drake ended up signing with Universal Motown (while keeping his affiliation with Weezy's Young Money and Cash Money intact), and they officially introduced Drake with the So Far Gone EP. The release included seven tracks from the mixtape and gave undeniable proof that the hype and noise surrounding the rapper were all justified. The productions (courtesy of members of Drake's Toronto-based crew) are nuanced and powerful, the hooks are huge, and Drake has lyrical skills and a vocal flow that make him one of the best young spitters on the scene. The twists and turns of his words keep the songs interesting on repeated listens, the equal amounts of inspired raunchiness and heart-felt introspection make for a truly well-rounded presentation, and most impressively, the youngster manages to keep up with his mentor on the three tracks Lil Wayne adds verses to. His rapping style owes some to Wayne's drawling and woozy delivery, but he also has some of Kanye's erudition, Jay-Z's bite, and plenty of contemporary R&B influence. In the end, though, the melding of the various influences means he comes up with something all his own. That the memorable, constantly surprising lyrics and smooth flow are laid on top of the rich productions and sticky hooks means that there are some jams here that will put the competition on their heels. Best I Ever Had is the instant classic, but the other six songs are just as impressive. The melancholy "Houstatlantavegas" and "The Calm" show Drake's sensitive side, "Successful" and "Uptown" are hard-edged pop-rap, "I'm Goin' In" gives a glimpse of Drake's hardcore credentials, and "Fear" wraps up the too-short EP with some nice symphonic soul-rap. When an artist is as talked about and hyped as Drake was in 2009, it's easy to write them off as an industry creation or some kind of fluke. So Far Gone shows that Drake is for real, and works as a tantalizing teaser for his first full-length record.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Ultimate Manilow

Barry Manilow
Unlike some other MOR pop stars, Barry Manilow never enjoyed the sort of swinging-hipster revival that made him a hot name to drop, ironically or otherwise. Incredibly enough, until the release of Ultimate Manilow in early 2002, there was no comprehensive single-disc hits package on the market -- a shockingly long wait for one of the most popular hitmakers of the '70s, hip or not (and clearly the demand was there; Ultimate Manilow entered the charts at number three). The 20 selections on Ultimate Manilow are arranged in the chronological order in which they became hits, and the emphasis here is on "hits" -- i.e., chart singles. Between 1974 and 1981, Manilow reached the Top 40 20 times, and 18 of those songs are present; the other two (minor early-'80s hits) were bumped by "Bandstand Boogie," Manilow's well-known version of the American Bandstand theme song, and "When October Goes," a track from his 1984 jazz-pop album, 2:00 AM Paradise Café. It's an extremely straightforward approach to a greatest-hits compilation, which is actually something to be commended given Arista's botched Whitney Houston best-of (where they omitted several songs to protect back-catalog sales, although that's not likely a concern with Manilow). So is anything missing? Nothing crucial; the only potential disappointment is for fans who love Manilow's detours into flamboyant, Broadway-style production numbers. The concentration on hits means that several great B-sides in that vein ("New York City Rhythm," "Riders to the Stars," "Beautiful Music," the endearingly awkward "Jump Shout Boogie") are not included. But that's really a small quibble, and there simply wasn't room for them anyhow. Ultimate Manilow lives up to its title by including everything a casual fan would want. The only question is, what took so long?

Steve Huey, Rovi

Miles Davis Plays For Lovers (Remastered)

Miles Davis
Miles Davis Plays for Lovers collects a number of ballads from the trumpeter's mid-'50s albums to create a lovely late-night disc for friends, night owls, and couples in love. The core band for three-quarters of the album consists of trumpeter Davis, tenor John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. There's an elegant beauty to pieces like "My Funny Valentine" and "You're My Everything," featuring the rhythm section's spare, tasteful backdrop and the carefully chosen notes of Davis and Coltrane's horns. Even when this lineup shifts occasionally, the low-light mood remains. Bassist Charles Mingus lends a hand on "Smooch" and "Easy Living," while pianist Horace Silver chimes in on "You Don't Know What Love Is." There are fabulous takes of "'Round Midnight," originally recorded for Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, and the peaceful, melancholy closer, "When I Fall in Love." Davis' refined trumpet style, with its full-bodied notes and use of quiet spaces, has reached an early peak here. One also notices the intricate ensemble work by these various groups, with each musician playing just the right number of notes. Plays for Lovers is an exquisite disc that will also serve as a fine introduction to Davis' 1953-1956 work.

Ronnie D. Lankford Jr., Rovi

Black Panties

R. Kelly

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

Carolina

Eric Church
Country music outlaw Eric Church blasted onto the scene in 2006 with his jaw-dropping debut effort, Sinners Like Me. The North Carolina native quickly earned a dedicated following and a reputation for putting on a killer live show. Carolina, the singer/songwriter's 2009 sophomore release, is as raw and real as they come out of Nashville -- where style is often passed

off as substance. Like Sinners Like Me, Carolina is a from-the-gut collection filled to the brim with traditionally rooted country music that is masterfully tempered with Southern baked rock. From the floor rattling fury of "Ain't Killed Me Yet" to the heart tugging honesty of "Those I've Loved" Church soars higher here than he did on his critically praised debut. The characters who live and breathe between the chords and melodies in Church's songs are as authentic as the well-worn frets on his acoustic guitar. The guy on the chugging "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," who claims Johnny Cash would have "whipped" the ass of those country posers who insist on name-checking the late "Man In Black" in their songs, bears a strong resemblance to Church himself. Loud guitars, gritty vocals, and more soul than a Sunday morning sermon best sums up Carolina.

Todd Sterling, Rovi

My Cherie Amour

Stevie Wonder
Notable for containing Wonder's then-most recent Top Ten hit, the title track, and its follow-up, "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," this album otherwise contains contemporary filler like "Light My Fire," plus a peculiar arrangement of "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I that makes it sound like "For Once In My Life."

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

The Hits 1

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer
Produced by Scott Hendricks (Faith Hill, Trace Adkins), the eponymous debut from Detroit-born, actress/singer/songwriter Jana Kramer features 11 radio-ready, country-pop gems that run the gamut from cool and mischievous ("If You Wanna") to heartbroken and tender ("Good as When You're Bad"). With her model looks and visual arts pedigree, it's tempting to compare Kramer to Julianne Hough, but the One Tree Hill star's first musical offering does a nice job blending the contemporary twang of artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift with the tradtionalist spirit of classic country and folk crooners like Patsy Cline and James Taylor., Rovi

Songs About Jane

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

MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi

The Best Of Anita Baker

Anita Baker
Rhino's 2002 compilation The Best of Anita Baker contains all of her hits -- both the pop crossovers and songs that were big only on the R&B charts. Many of these songs are presented in their single edits, not the album versions, which is a plus, since these are the versions that were played on the radio. Although it is true that nothing Anita Baker did was ever as sublime as Rapture, she did continually turn out fine adult contemporary and urban soul ballads throughout the late '80s and early '90s, all of which are here, making this not just a good summary/introduction, but a nice disc of highlights for those searching for more than Rapture.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Stars Dance

Selena Gomez

Songs For Swingin' Lovers!

Frank Sinatra
After the ballad-heavy In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle returned to up-tempo, swing material with Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, arguably the vocalist's greatest swing set. Like Sinatra's previous Capitol albums, Songs for Swingin' Lovers! consists of reinterpreted pop standards, ranging from the ten-year-old "You Make Me Feel So Young" to the 20-year-old "Pennies From Heaven" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." Sinatra is supremely confident throughout the album, singing with authority and joy. That joy is replicated in Riddle's arrangements, which manage to rethink these standards in fresh yet reverent ways. Working with a core rhythm section and a full string orchestra, Riddle writes scores that are surprisingly subtle. "I've Got You Under My Skin," with its breathtaking middle section, is a perfect example of how Sinatra works with the band. Both swing hard, stretching out the rhythms and melodies but never losing sight of the original song. Songs for Swingin' Lovers! never loses momentum. The great songs keep coming and the performances are all stellar, resulting in one of Sinatra's true classics.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Love Songs

Otis Redding
Sixteen of Redding's more romantically inclined performances, largely taken from minor hit singles and album tracks, although "Try a Little Tenderness," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "That's How Strong My Love Is," and "Pain In My Heart" are all among his most popular (and best) outings. If Redding had not had such a large and varied output and this actually represented his best material, it would certainly deserve four stars, or perhaps even more. It isn't a best-of, of course, which is why it only receives an average rating, although the music is fine. Certainly it's a good disc (and well annotated by David Nathan), with songs like "My Girl" and "I Love You More Than Words Can Say" that will be unfamiliar to many, but it's hard to imagine who needs it. The committed Otis Redding fan probably has it all, and the Otis Redding dilettante will want a greatest-hits package instead, especially considering that this lacks such essential items as "Dock of the Bay" and "Respect."

Richie Unterberger, Rovi

Avalanche

Quadron

Romanza

Andrea Bocelli

Songs Of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen
At a time when a growing number of pop songwriters were embracing a more explicitly poetic approach in their lyrics, the 1967 debut album from Leonard Cohen introduced a songwriter who, rather than being inspired by "serious" literature, took up music after establishing himself as a published author and poet. The ten songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen were certainly beautifully constructed, artful in a way few (if any) other lyricists would approach for some time, but what's most striking about these songs isn't Cohen's technique, superb as it is, so much as his portraits of a world dominated by love and lust, rage and need, compassion and betrayal. While the relationship between men and women was often the framework for Cohen's songs (he didn't earn the nickname "the master of erotic despair" for nothing), he didn't write about love; rather, Cohen used the never-ending thrust and parry between the sexes as a jumping off point for his obsessive investigation of humanity's occasional kindness and frequent atrocities (both emotional and physical). Cohen's world view would be heady stuff at nearly any time and place, but coming in a year when pop music was only just beginning to be taken seriously, Songs of Leonard Cohen was a truly audacious achievement, as bold a challenge to pop music conventions as the other great debut of the year, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and a nearly perfectly realized product of his creative imagination. Producer John Simon added a touch of polish to Cohen's songs with his arrangements (originally Cohen wanted no accompaniment other than his guitar), though the results don't detract from his dry but emotive vocals; instead, they complement his lyrics with a thoughtful beauty and give the songs even greater strength. And a number of Cohen's finest songs appeared here, including the luminous "Suzanne," the subtly venomous "Master Song" and "Sisters of Mercy," which would later be used to memorable effect in Robert Altman's film "McCabe and Mrs. Miller". Many artists work their whole career to create a work as singular and accomplished as Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Cohen worked this alchemy the first time he entered a recording studio; few musicians have ever created a more remarkable or enduring debut. [Leonard Cohen's back catalog had long been in need of refurbishing when Sony/BMG released a remastered edition of Songs of Leonard Cohen in 2007. The new edition featured two bonus tracks recorded during the original sessions for the album, "Store Room" and "Blessed Is the Memory," and while neither is a major discovery, they're fine songs and worthy additions to the set. The album's audio is subtly but noticeably improved, and the beautifully designed package includes lyrics for the original album's ten songs as well as an essay from Anthony DeCurtis.]

Mark Deming, Rovi

Love Songs

Destiny's Child
While it was issued just prior to the group's reunion performance during the halftime show of Super Bowl XLVII and, oh yeah, Valentine's Day 2013, Love Songs is more thoughtful than expected. "Cater 2 U" is the lone inclusion that was released as a single, unless you count Timbaland's slinky mix of "Say My Name." Otherwise, this is a sharp selection of deep album cuts, including one from Kelly Rowland's Simply Deep ("Heaven"), that demonstrates the group's depth behind the hits. The one new song, "Nuclear," is a knockout. Produced by Pharrell, it sounds more like something released in 1990 by the Chimes, Soul II Soul, or the Family Stand than any pop-R&B circa 2013.

Corazón Profundo

Carlos Vives
After eight years without an album of new material, Colombian singer/songwriter, guitarist, and actor Carlos Vives returned with an album of songs that come "from the bottom of his heart." Big hit and obvious highlight "Volví a Nacer" kicks off the album in a warm and familiar style, while the follow-up single "Como Le Gusta a Tu Cuerpo" offers some new sounds thanks in part to the a guest appearance from Brazilian singer Michel Teló. Expect nostalgic numbers and romantic songs, along with some modern, polished pop.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Three Kings

TGT

McCartney

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney retreated from the spotlight of the Beatles by recording his first solo album at his home studio, performing nearly all of the instruments himself. Appropriately, McCartney has an endearingly ragged, homemade quality that makes even its filler -- and there is quite a bit of filler -- rather ingratiating. Only a handful of songs rank as full-fledged McCartney classics, but those songs -- the light folk-pop of "That Would Be Something," the sweet, gentle "Every Night," the ramshackle Beatles leftover "Teddy Boy," and the staggering "Maybe I'm Amazed" (not coincidentally the only rocker on the album) -- are full of all the easy melodic charm that is McCartney's trademark. The rest of the album is charmingly slight, especially if it is read as a way to bring Paul back to earth after the heights of the Beatles. At the time, the throwaway nature of much of the material was a shock, but it has become charming in retrospect, even pointing the way toward the homegrown charms of lo-fi several decades into the future. [Hear Music's 2011 reissue of McCartney is available in two separate expanded editions: a Special Edition with two CDs and a Deluxe Edition that adds a DVD and a hardcover book. The bonus disc contains the ragged, unfinished outtake “Suicide,” an instrumental version of “Oo You” called “Don’t Cry Baby,” a rough piano demo of the unheard tongue-in-cheek music hall song “Women Kind,” a version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the 1974 TV special "One Hand Clapping" (a video of which is on the Deluxe Band on the Run), then three songs from McCartney performed live at Glasgow in 1979: “Every Night,” “Hot as Sun,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The DVD contains a documentary on the making of the album, the music video for “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Concert for the People of Kampuchea versions of “Every Night” and “Hot as Sun” from 1979, and is capped off with readings of “Junk” and “That Would Be Something” from 1991’s MTV Unplugged. It’s a ramshackle hodgepodge but it has considerable charm and is a fitting way to expand McCartney.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Plans

Death Cab for Cutie
For your consideration: a wildly successful indie rock band with a legion of followers on an equally successful, highly credible independent label makes the jump to major-label powerhouse Atlantic, leading to much chagrin and speculation among its fans as they awaited with bated breath for what would happen to the group. The result was For Your Own Special Sweetheart, inarguably the most polished and fully realized album of Dischord alumnus Jawbox's career. Fast forward ten years and you find Barsuk's Death Cab for Cutie in the same position, making the same move. A new label, a larger crowd (thanks to their repeated appearances on The OC), and a side project of Ben Gibbard (Postal Service) that very well overshadowed the success of his main project. All of the moves were perfectly aligned to take the little band that could into the rock stratosphere. But the difference between Jawbox and Death Cab for Cutie was that For Your Own Special Sweetheart went on to be the finest release of Jawbox's canon. Plans definitely comes close to that mark, but falls slightly short. In comparison to the dry, raw production of Transatlanticism, Plans is warm and polished, the kind of album expected from a band obsessed with the sound of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Chris Walla does an amazing job bringing the group's sound in a different direction than before without compromising too many of the things that made the group sound great to begin with. Thematically, Plans is the Death Cab for Cutie suitable for graduate students, world-weary and wiser from their experiences, realizing they can no longer be love-starved 20-somethings without a clue yet hopelessly cursed to face the same issues. And there's merit to be had in acknowledging that maturity, for even blink-182 figured out their age and released their "serious" album. Gibbard's wispy, poetic lyrics (which could easily have been stolen from Aimee Mann's dressing room while she wasn't looking) still remain an artery from which the rest of the band beats and are some of his finest ever, but this time around the band aligns itself more with a series of emotional murmurs rather than a heart attack. The album winds its way from one ballad to the next, with brief stopovers at moderately up-tempo numbers to help break things up a bit. And it's this sense of resignation that either makes or breaks the album, depending on which Death Cab for Cutie is your favorite: the melancholic, hopeless romantic or the one who wears its heart on its sleeve with unbridled energy and passion. If Transatlanticism was Gibbard's Pet Sounds and Postal Service was SMiLE, then this is definitely Wild Honey, loved by adoring new fans and those who enjoy the ballads. But those hoping for a bit more -- for the bar to be raised higher -- might find this a mildly predictable exercise in Gibbard exorcising the demons of Phil Collins that haunt him. Plans is both a destination and a transitional journey for the group, one that sees the fulfillment of years of toiling away to develop their ideas and sound. But it's with the completion of those ideas that band is faced with a new set of crossroads and challenges to tread upon: to stay the course and suffer stagnation or try something bold and daringly new with their future. Which road they'll take will make all the difference.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Love Songs

The Isley Brothers
It's hard to believe that Ronnie Isley collaborated with Dr. Dre and the departed Tupac Shakur on some of the late 20th century's most hardcore hip-hop music. Isley, of the renowned group the Isley Brothers, has his roots firmly placed in '70s R&B and soul music. D'Angelo, Maxwell, and R. Kelly, among other bedroom-music artists, all owe a bit of thanks to the Isley Brothers, the original slow-jam crooners. The trio's sexiest and most sensual moments have been captured on Love Songs, an ongoing series of CD collections of the same name on Columbia Legacy and Epic Legacy Records. (Other Love Songs sets for 2001 include recordings from Frank Sinatra, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, and Duke Ellington.) And as far as thematic compilations go, this one is a winner. The 13 selected tracks on Love Songs don't skip a beat, and the sexy boudoir fare remains consistent throughout the album's 70-plus minutes. There is a certain sensitivity inherent to Isley's falsetto voice that sets him apart from other singers in this category of music. It's a vulnerability and tenderness that Barry White, and others of the like, do not have. Such Isley Brothers greats as "For the Love of You," "Voyage to Atlantis," "Sensuality," and "Between the Sheets" are included on Love Songs. The CD is a treasured example of the original bedroom music, and arguably more potent than its contemporary counterparts. No amount of pheromones, love potions, or "spells" can come close to the romantic rendezvous that is the Isley Brothers' Love Songs. Play this album at your own risk -- and expect to call in "sick" to the office the next day.

Liana Jonas, Rovi

Nina Simone For Lovers

Nina Simone
This second of two Nina Simone compilations issued in 2005 (and third in two years), For Lovers focuses on Simone's crucial tenure on the Verve imprint. It's not a thorough examination of her career by any stretch, but it does feature what many consider to be ideal performances of two of her most well-known songs: "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Fans of Simone's work will already have many of these recordings courtesy of other records, but casual listeners wanting to hear the softer side of this revolutionary jazz chanteuse will find this an excellent place to start, and will want to dig deeper into her rich back catalog.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Call Me Irresponsible

Michael Bublé
More than any of his contemporaries, vocalist Michael Bublé has bridged the gap between standards-oriented vocal pop and more contemporary pop vocals. Having perfected the mix on his superb 2003 effort, It's Time, which found the Frank Sinatra-influenced singer covering both "I've Got You Under My Skin" and Leon Russell's R&B ballad "A Song for You," Bublé wisely doesn't mess with a good thing on 2007's Call Me Irresponsible. Once again delving into a mix of swinging big-band numbers and classic pop hits such as the wickedly hip '60s standard "Comin' Home Baby" (featuring backing vocals from Boyz II Men), the album is a breezy, stylish good time. And while such cuts as "The Best Is Yet to Come" and the laid-back title track comfortably cast Bublé as a modern-day crooner consistent with his billing, the unexpected reworkings of contemporary pop songs often make the biggest impact. To these ends, his bossa nova duet with vocalist Ivan Lins on Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" and the reharmonized Willie Nelson perennial "Always on My Mind" work particularly well here, not as cheeky cabaret but as artfully crafted and devastatingly moving ballads. And it's not just the cover tunes that drive the album; on the contrary, much like the Bublé co-written ballad "Home" defined the mood of It's Time, his sparkling melodic pop original "Everything" helps make Call Me Irresponsible a truly welcome pop album by any standard. This CD was nominated for a Grammy award in 2007 as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and "Everything" was nominated for Best Male Pop Performance.

Matt Collar, Rovi

The Way It Is

Keyshia Cole
An advantage Keyshia Cole has over a lot of her young contemporaries is experience. As a foster child growing up in Oakland, she went through a lot of downs, and from the sounds of The Way It Is, her first album, she's had her share of complex relationships. Cole had a hand in the writing of just about every track, and she has a number of major players -- Kanye West, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Ron Fair (Christina Aguilera, Mya), E-Poppi (Missy Elliott, Destiny's Child) -- in her corner. With only a couple exceptions, The Way It Is is about the ugly parts of a romantic relationship, so there's little room left for upbeat material. From the opener, "(I Just Want It) To Be Over," the album seems to be set up like a linear narrative about a crumbling relationship, but it doesn't quite play out that way, with the scenes shuffled out of order. ("Love," one of the positive songs, comes after the song where the punk gets dumped and before the song where he's called out for changing.) None of it's all that profound, but Cole sells it all extremely well, especially on "I Should Have Cheated," where she tires of an accusing and hypocritical lover ("I should go have my fun and do all the things you say I do"). Cole's voice is sweet and ringing, like a wiser version of Lil' Mo who has had to weather a tremendous amount of drama. She could be around for a while. ("Never," her hit song from the Barbershop 2 soundtrack, is included.)

Andy Kellman, Rovi

I'm In The Mood For Love ... The Most Romantic Melodies Of All Time

Kenny G
There are bound to be those who will simply refuse to give Kenny G's 2006 release, I'm in the Mood for Love, half a chance, and it's a crying shame. Returning to a purely instrumental approach following At Last...The Duets Album (which featured a great cameo by Chaka Khan), I'm in the Mood for Love is admittedly a lot like Kenny G's other albums. Like At Last..., this is yet another album's worth of standards, ranging from torch songs to "Yesterday." And like every other album Kenny G has made, it's pop-oriented and ultra-smooth. But the overall feel of this release is a little brassier and a smidgen more big band than usual, and it adds up to some sparkling moments. The title track, "I'm in the Mood for Love," two-steps along with ease, warmth, and genuine emotion, and it's a real treat to hear Walter Afanasieff on piano. "The Way You Look Tonight" is refreshingly genteel, and there's something gratifying in hearing Kenny G belt out "Fly Me to the Moon." Naturally, there are a few underwhelming moments on the album. Kenny G's squealing improvisation on "Love Theme from 'Romeo and Juliet'" is a little over the top, and a few of the arrangements are forgettable, if not a tad silly (the chimes on "If," for example). But when a slinky-sweet number like "It Had to Be You" comes rolling around, you forget all about it.

Margaret Reges, Rovi

Lights

Ellie Goulding
It shouldn't surprise any Ellie Goulding fan to know that as a songwriter, the 23-year-old British songstress has written for the likes of Gabriella Cilmi and Diana Vickers. That's because Goulding's talent doesn't stretch far from other teen Brit-pop artists of 2010, who are more likely to pull back and dig deep on a record than indulge in the froth of Girls Aloud or Sugababes. However, Goulding's first full-length album, Lights, seems to fall somewhere in between the two. It lacks the dramatic crash and bang of Florence + the Machine's Lungs, but is certainly a more restrained, compelling listen than the debut records by Pixie Lott and Little Boots. Goulding's quite the songwriter (she co-wrote every track), and songs like "This Love" and "Under the Sheets" suggest that Goulding's album doesn't fall back on singles like Paloma Faith's album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? This album is tender, sharp, and most importantly, musically relevant. Goulding is able to take the best parts of all of her contemporaries' styles and create pleasantly surprising records. A casual listener may not adore Goulding's album in its entirety, but many will be able to find something to adore from this magical young talent. [The U.S. release of the album switches up the track list (adding the title track and cutting "Wish I'd Stayed"), changes the cover, and adds a bonus track (her version of Elton John's "Your Song").]

Matthew Chisling, Rovi

The Love Songs Collection

Al Green
"Love songs" collections have become "de rigueur" around Valentine's Day, and EMI catalog imprint The Right Stuff's Al Green compilation puts a soul twist on the genre. The conceit, as usual, is that most pop singers spend most of their time singing about love anyway, and that's certainly the case with Green (that is, when he's not singing about God). The only categories of material that would seem to be off-limits are tracks that are a bit too up-tempo (the idea here is to feature ballads that will contribute to that romantic Valentine's Day mood) or that express romantic frustration. Thus, Green hits like "Can't Get Next to You" and "Tired of Being Alone" are out. But most of his output fits the concept, and the selection is heavily weighted toward his early-'70s hitmaking days. Technically, the collection stretches from 1967's "Guilty" to 2002's Ann Nesby hit "Put It on Paper," which featured Green. But 12 of the 17 tracks date from Green's 1972-1973 heyday, and ten of the 16 pop chart entries he scored between 1971 and 1975 are included. Hence, the album functions as a de facto hits collection as well. Beyond the hits, there are interesting, stretched-out interpretations of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" and the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Despite his religious commitment, Green has always been an accomplished loverman, and this album provides 17 convincing arguments why. [Fat Possum's 2013 reissue added a bonus track.]

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

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

The Ballads

Mariah Carey
In 1998, it would have been a cheap joke to say that Mariah Carey had no other kind of hits than ballads, but in the ensuing decade she steadily remade herself into an R&B diva, obscuring if not quite erasing the well-mannered adult contemporary singer of the '90s. The 2009 compilation The Ballads -- released just before Valentines Day 2009 -- attempts to turn back the clock by focusing just on those AC tunes -- 18 of them, in fact, including such mammoth hits as "Hero," "One Sweet Day," "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "I'll Be There," "I Still Believe," "Dreamlover," and "Always Be My Baby." Of course, this concentration on middle of the road ballads is a side effect of label affiliation: The Ballads is a product of Sony, who had Mariah during the '90s, before the club R&B overshadowed these office-friendly hits, so it's easier for them to cobble together a comp of Carey at her most sentimental. And that's what The Ballads is: nothing but big love songs sung in a big voice. For fans who have missed this side of Mariah in the 2000s, this is a welcome reminder of what they used to love. [A U.S. version with a different track listing was also released.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Demi

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

For Lovers Only

The Temptations
Arguably the Temptations' best album since Truly For You dropped in 1984, For Lovers Only is not the Temptations' first album of standards. This set of classics is different than Temptations in a Mellow Mood, where they acquiesced to the material, giving relatively straight readings, and never deviated far from the songs' popular arrangements. The only things the standards on For Lovers Only have in common with the originals are the titles and the lyrics, the arrangements are completely different, and the tempos are changed. The Temptations' sing with this much enthusiasm in years. The main shortcoming of this record is that the lead singers for the particular songs aren't listed in the CD Booklet; this is essential information, since the group has gone through so many changes. Richard Perry outdid himself with this production, he expertly captured the essence of the Temptations, regardless of the members, in these songs. Their signature vocal blend is emphasized at every turn, and why not, it's what brought throngs of fans into their fold in the first place. He didn't concentrate on one lead singer, like others have in the past. The Temptations were initially marketed as a group of five capable lead singers and that's what you get with this excellent collection. Credit also goes to Jimmy Varner who assisted in the production, all the vocals and arrangements were done by the Temptations. I hope we don't have to wait another 11 years.

Andrew Hamilton, Rovi

Face Value

Phil Collins
Collins proves himself a passionate singer (and distinctive drummer) with a gift for both deeply felt ballads and snarling rockers. His debut album transformed him from the frontman of Genesis to a solo star who happened to be in Genesis, too. Contains "In the Air Tonight" and "I Missed Again."

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston
As big a hit as it was -- and it was a multi-platinum blockbuster, spinning off several chart-toppers -- it’s not easy to think of Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut as the dawning of a new era, but it was. Arriving in the thick of MTV, when the slick sounds of yacht-soul were fading, Whitney Houston is the foundation of diva-pop, straddling clean, cheery R&B and big ballads designed with the adult contemporary audience in mind. Houston’s background lay in the former -- actually, it was even riskier, encompassing a stint with the experimental Bill Laswell outfit Material -- and her benefactor Clive Davis knew all about selling records to the masses. Appealing as this album is, Davis may never have imagined how Whitney Houston would shift tastes, pushing toward skyscraping ballads where the singer’s affectations, not the songs, were paramount -- a move that later led to hollow records, but on Whitney Houston the songs were as important as the immaculate productions. Certainly, the showstopping “Greatest Love of All” provided the blueprint for decades of divas, but it’s the only overblown moment here, with the rest of the ballads -- notably “Saving All My Love for You” and “You Give Good Love” -- burning slowly and seductively, but what really impresses some 20-plus years on are the lighter tracks, particularly the breakthrough single “How Will I Know” and the unheralded “Thinking About You,” a dance/R&B hit co-written by Kashif that remains one of Whitney’s purest pop pleasures. These joyful, rhythmic moments faded away from Houston’s later work -- and also rarely surfaced on the records of those who followed her -- but their presence on this debut turns this into a fully rounded record, the rare debut that manages to telegraph every aspect of an artist's career in a mere ten songs. [The 2010 25th anniversary edition of Whitney Houston is expanded with five bonus tracks -- remixes of “Thinking About You,” “Someone for Me,” “How Will I Know,” a live version of “Greatest Love of All” from 1990, and a superfluous a cappella mix of “How Will I Know” -- and a bonus DVD containing music videos from the album, new interviews, and -- best of all -- Whitney’s star-making 1983 performance on The Merv Griffin Show.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

7 Days of WEAK

Adrian Marcel

This Song's For You

Ronald Isley