Tax Day Flash Sale (This Promotion Has Expired)

Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded

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

Andy Kellman, Rovi

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy features the fearless artistic expression of an obscure cult classic on the scale of a mainstream superstar. Transcending hip-hop and pop, this sonic barrage plays out like an audacious, epic drama—Kanye's performance finds him delving deep into his dark side, as brooding as he is bold. Memorable hits include "Runaway," "Power" and "Monster," while "All of the Lights," featuring Rihanna, is an absolute explosion. On "Lost in the World" with Bon Iver, 'Ye's raps are pure poetry: "You're my heaven, you're my hell…You're my freedom, you're my jail/You're my lies, you're my truth/You're my war, you're my truce/You're my questions, you're my proof."

– Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Tailgates And Tanlines

Luke Bryan
The third time around, Luke Bryan doubles down on his calling card: his inherent sweetness, the warmth he has as the country boy next door. Bryan is so genial that when he implores his country girl to “shake it for me,” there’s nary a trace of lasciviousness: he just wants to be sure she’s having a good time. This aw-shucks generosity resonates throughout Tailgates & Tanlines, a record that capitalizes on the relaxed professionalism of 2009’s Doin’ My Thing. Bryan’s bright setting plays as pop -- it’s too clean and crisp, too bereft of grit to ever be mistaken as something hardcore -- but his foundation is pure country, songs that are sturdy and unfussy, never bothering with sugary pop hooks. This is a slight shift from Doin’ My Thing, which was pop enough to have a OneRepublic cover fit within the context, but Bryan retains the shiny friendliness of his sophomore set and marries it to songs that are strictly country, whether they’re a lazy Sunday stroll like “Too Damn Young,” the country corn of “You Don’t Know Jack,” the farmtown anthem “Harvest Time,” the blues stomp of “Muckalee Creek Water,” or the open-road sprightliness of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” Much of this is modern in sensibility, anchored by subtle ties to the past, a deliberate move from Bryan both as a writer -- he had a hand in penning eight of the 13 tunes here -- and a performer, showing that he knows exactly what his strengths are: he’s not flashy yet he’s not boring, he’s laid-back and assured, a modern guy who knows his roots but is happy to be in the present, and it’s hard not to smile along with the guy as he sings.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Reasonable Doubt

Jay-Z
Reasonable Doubt stands out among Jay-Z's many albums and not entirely because it's his debut album. Unlike most of his subsequent albums, it's seamless. Every song belongs here, from timeless hits like "Can't Knock the Hustle" to personal moments like "Regrets." Each song is like a separate chapter, revealing another aspect of Jay-Z's story, which, in 1996, was still untold. Nobody knew who he was when Reasonable Doubt dropped, keep in mind. Jay-Z seemingly came from nowhere. All listeners knew was what's on this autobiographical debut -- tales of "extensive hoes with expensive clothes," warnings of "all d'evils that the game'll do," goals of "trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot," and, above all, one reoccuring maxim: "in order to survive, [you] gotta learn to live with regrets." Beyond Jay-Z's rhetorical wealth of insight and wisdom, Reasonable Doubt also boasts an amazing roster of producers. Granted, most Jay-Z albums do, but this lineup -- Ski, Clark Kent, and DJ Premier -- is different. They represent the pre-gangsta era, a foregone era when samples fueled the beats and turntablism supplied the hooks. This classic production style, which is essentially refined hip-hop in its canonical sense, sets Reasonable Doubt apart from Jay-Z's later work. The lyrics do the same because they're so candidly confessional, but it's the producers more so than Jay-Z himself that make this album so untouchable. Similar to how every Nas album is continually measured against Illmatic and, in turn, often criticized for being different, every successive Jay-Z album was, likewise, held up to Reasonable Doubt. Few compared. And not necessarily because they're inferior, but rather because Reasonable Doubt is such an anomaly. For most listeners who heard this album in 1996, and perhaps for many who subsequently discovered it after being drawn in by more popular albums like Hard Knock Life, Reasonable Doubt will forever be Jay-Z's one definitive effort.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Teenage Dream

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

God's Not Dead

Newsboys
Continuing their prolific output since the recruitment of dc Talk frontman Michael Tait, God's Not Dead is the third release from Aussie Christian rock outfit Newsboys in less than 18 months, following 2010's double whammy of Born Again and their Christmas EP. Suggesting that their creative flow may have been exhausted, their 15th studio effort and first worship album since 2004's Devotion, features several cover versions of popular contemporary worship songs from the likes of Ben Cantelon ("Savior of the World"), Hillsong ("Forever Reign"), and Daniel Bashta (the title track). But by opting to leave the inspirational indie rock source material largely intact, the band fail to stamp their own mark on proceedings, with only the surprisingly funky, indie disco treatment of Chris McClarney's country-rock anthem "Your Love Never Fails," and the ramped-up, crunching metal-lite riffs on Gateway Worship's emotive "Revelation Song" providing any notable differences. While the chugging basslines, "woah-oah" choruses, and pounding beats of original compositions, "The King Is Coming" and "Here We Stand" both adhere to the album's prevalent, rousing indie rock formula, the punchy, string-soaked dramatics of closer "I Am Second" (one of two tracks featuring the vocals of Tait's former bandmate Kevin Max) and the soaring hymnal acoustics of "All the Way" prove the Newsboys haven't run out of ideas. But with one track lifted from their previous effort ("Mighty to Save") and a string of competent but unremarkable covers, God's Not Dead suggests Newsboys need their batteries recharged.

Jon O'Brien, Rovi

WZRD

WZRD
The hip-hop departure has become something of a rite of passage for the eccentric emcee. Kanye did it, Wayne did it, and now Kid Cudi is making a go at it, teaming up with producer Dot Da Genius to create the alt-rock project WZRD. Dot possesses a pretty solid ear for clumping up interesting electronic textures and his greatest clumps recall industrial experimentalists like Suicide or Throbbing Gristle. More often, though, he waddles around flatly executed, Nirvana-inspired guitar riffs while Cudi bellows in a tone somewhere between his typical stoner raps and Chris Cornell's pout-croons. The songwriting is particularly unstructured, too, making a crossover to the actual rock audience seem unlikely. It should, however, be just enough to satisfy Cudi's fanbase.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

X&Y

Coldplay
After Radiohead refused to accept the mantle of "world's biggest and most important rock band," Coldplay stepped up to the plate with their debut, Parachutes. Tasteful, earnest, introspective, anthemic, and grounded in guitars, Coldplay was everything Radiohead weren't but fans wanted them to be; Parachutes became a transatlantic hit and the sequel, A Rush of Blood to the Head, was even bigger, positioning Coldplay to be new Radiohead "and" the new U2. To that end, Coldplay's third album, X&Y, is designed to elevate them to the major leagues. It's deliberate and sleek, hip enough to sample Kraftwerk and blend in fashionable post-punk allusions without altering the band's core. X&Y is hardly a bold step forward, but rather a consolidation of Coldplay's strengths, particularly their skill at crafting surging, widescreen epics.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

It Won't Be Soon Before Long.

Maroon 5
Maroon 5's 2002 debut album, Songs About Jane, was the kind of hit that doesn't happen often in the new millennium -- a genuine word-of-mouth hit whose popularity grew steadily after its release, largely due to the sweet, sunny hit "This Love," a song sly and catchy enough to stay on the adult pop charts for years without wearing out its welcome. It also was catchy enough to engender years of goodwill. Five years of goodwill, in fact, as the band toured heavily while slowly tinkering away on their second album, finally delivering It Won't Be Soon Before Long (its title perhaps a pun on the gap between records, perhaps not) half a decade after Songs About Jane. If that delay sounds like a symptom of sophomore jitters, that's not exactly true, since during that long stretch between albums Maroon 5 worked Songs About Jane and, in a sense, that album wasn't strictly their first album, either. Maroon 5 evolved out of Kara's Flowers, a post-grunge pop band whose 1997 debut never took off, not even when their debut was reissued in the wake of Maroon's success, but it did provide the group with the foundation for their success; it's where they paid their dues and learned how to be a pop band. Traces of Kara's Flowers could be heard in Maroon's rockier moments on their debut, but under their new name, the group began to develop an infatuation with blue-eyed soul-pop, which they wisely develop on It Won't Be Soon Before Long. More than develop, they "modernize" it, borrowing elements of Justin Timberlake's stylized synthesized soul, but Adam Levine is wise enough to know that he's no young colt, like JT. He knows that he's a pop guy, somewhat in the tradition of Hall & Oates, but he isn't trying to be retro, he's trying to fill that void, making records that are melodic, stylish, and soulful, which It Won't Be Soon Before Long certainly is.

In every respect, It Won't Be Soon is a bigger album than its predecessor: hooks pile up one after another, there's not an ounce of fat on the songs, the production is so immaculate that it glistens. If there were lingering elements of Maroon 5's alt-rock past on Songs About Jane -- primarily in its lazy, hazy vibe -- they're gone now, replaced by the sleek, assured sound of a band that's eager to embrace its status as the big American mainstream pop band of the decade. But Maroon 5 isn't desperately grasping at the brass ring, they're playing it smart, building upon the core strengths of their debut and crafting a record that's designed to appeal to many different listeners, from teens crushing on Nelly Furtado's R&B makeover to adults looking for something smooth and melodic. It Won't Be Soon Before Long appeals to both audiences with an ease that seems effortless, but like any modern blockbuster, this album was shepherded by several different teams of producers, all brought in to emphasize a different personality within the group. The bulk of the record was cut with Spike Stent and Mike Elizondo -- Stent worked with U2, Oasis, Björk, and Gwen Stefani, while Elizondo had produced Fiona Apple and Pink -- but Queens of the Stone Age producer Eric Valentine was brought in for a couple of cuts, as was Mark Endert, who mixed "This Love." There may have been three different sets of producers, but the album is streamlined and seamless, never seeming calculated even if it was clearly made with an eye on mass appeal, and there are two reasons for that. First, Maroon 5 has gelled as a band, developing a clean, crisp attack that may bear traces of its influences -- there are knowing references to Prince, the Police, even OutKast sprinkled throughout (the keyboard on "Little of Your Time" is a direct nod to "Hey Ya") -- but it's a sound that's instantly identifiable as the band's own signature. Nowhere is that more evident than in how they can give soulful grooves like "If I Never See Your Face Again" a rock edge -- or how they can suddenly explode into shards of noise as they do on the coda of "Kiwi" -- or how when the electronic instruments dominate the production, the music still breathes like the work of an actual band, not like something that was constructed on a computer. But like with any good blue-eyed soul, the reason that this album works is the songs themselves. Even the flashiest production-driven tracks here -- the opening one-two punch of "If I Never See Your Face Again" and "Makes Me Wonder" -- aren't about feel; they're about the songs, which are uniformly tight and tuneful, sounding better with repeated plays, the way any radio-oriented pop should. If some of the ballads aren't as distinguished as the livelier tracks, they nevertheless are as sharply crafted as the rest, and the end result is that It Won't Be Soon Before Long is that rare self-stylized blockbuster album that sounds as big and satisfying as was intended.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Shania Twain

Sticky Fingers

The Rolling Stones
Pieced together from outtakes and much-labored-over songs, Sticky Fingers has a loose, ramshackle ambience that belies both its origins and the dark undercurrents of the songs. Apart from the classic opener, "Brown Sugar," the long workout "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," and the mean-spirited "Bitch," Sticky Fingers is a slow, bluesy affair, with a few country touches thrown in for good measure. The laid-back tone of the album gives ample room for new lead guitarist Mick Taylor to stretch out, but the key to the album isn't the instrumental interplay -- it's the soulfulness of the songs. With its offhand mixture of decadence, roots music, and outright malevolence, Sticky Fingers set the tone for the rest of the decade for the Stones.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Goblin

Tyler, The Creator

Innervisions

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

John Bush, Rovi

Rubber Factory

The Black Keys
It's easy to think of the Black Keys as the flip side of the White Stripes. They both hail from the Midwest, they both work a similar garage blues ground and both have color-coded names. If they're not quite kissing cousins, they're certainly kindred spirits, and they're following surprisingly similar career arcs, as the Keys' third album, Rubber Factory, is neatly analogous to the Stripes' third album breakthrough, White Blood Cells. Rubber Factory finds the duo expanding, stretching, and improving, coming into its own as a distinctive, original, thoroughly great rock & roll band. With 2003's Thickfreakness, guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney delivered on the promise of a raw, exciting debut by sharpening their sound and strengthening the songwriting, thereby upping the ante for their next record, and Rubber Factory doesn't disappoint. Instead, it surprises in a number of delightful ways, redefining the duo without losing the essence of the band. For instance, the production has more shades than either The Big Come Up or Thickfreakness -- witness the creepy late-night vibe of the opening "When the Lights Go Out" or how the spare, heartbroken, and slide guitar-laden "The Lengths" sounds like it's been rusted over -- but it's also harder, nastier, and uglier than those albums, piled with truly brutal, gut-level guitar. Yet through these sheets of noise, vulnerability pokes through, not just on "The Lengths," but in a lazy, loping, terrific version of the Kinks' "Act Nice and Gentle." And, like their cover of the Beatles' "She Said, She Said" on their debut, "Act Nice and Gentle" illustrates that even if the Black Keys have more legit blues credentials than any of their peers, they're nevertheless an indie rock band raised with not just a knowledge of classic rock, but with excellent taste and, most importantly, an instinct for what makes great rock & roll. They know that sound matters, not just "how" a band plays but how a band is recorded, and that blues sounds better when it's unvarnished, which is why each of their records feels more like a real blues album than anything cut since the '60s. But they're not revivalists, either. They've absorbed the language of classic rock and the sensibility of indie rock -- they're turning familiar sounds into something nervy and fresh, music that builds on the past yet lives fearlessly in the moment. On a sheer gut level, they're intoxicating and that alone would be enough to make Rubber Factory a strong listen, but what makes it transcendent is that Auerbach has developed into such a fine songwriter. His songs have enough melodic and lyrical twists to make it seem like he's breaking rules, but his trick is that he's doing this within traditional blues-rock structures. He's not just reinvigorating a familiar form, he's doing it without a lick of pretension; it never seems as if the songs were written, but that they've always existed and have just been discovered, which is true of any great blues song. Carney gives these songs the production they deserve -- some tunes are dense and heavy with guitars, others are spacious and haunting -- and the result is the most exciting and best rock & roll record of 2004.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Sound Of Silver

LCD Soundsystem
Compared to the first LCD Soundsystem album, Sound of Silver is less silly, funnier, less messy, sleeker, less rowdy, more fun, less distanced, more touching. It is just as linked to James Murphy's record collection, with traces of post-punk, disco, Krautrock, and singer/songwriter schlubs, but the references are evidently harder to pin down; the number of names dropped in the reviews published before its release must triple the amount mentioned throughout "Losing My Edge." There's even some confusion as to which version of David Bowie is lurking around. One clearly evident aspect of the album is that Murphy has streamlined his sound. All the jagged frays have been removed, replaced by a slightly tidier approach that is more direct and packs more punch. Murphy comes across as a fully naturalized producer of dance music -- especially on "Get Innocuous!" -- as opposed to a product of '90s indie rock who has made a convincing switch-up. And yet, the album's best song is sad, should not be played in any club, and it at least matches the work of any active songwriter who has been praised. "Someone Great," a bittersweet pop song built on swelling synthesizers and a dual vocal-and-glockenspiel melody, could definitely be about a devastating breakup ("To tell the truth I saw it coming/The way you were breathing"), at least until "You're smaller than my wife imagined/Surprised you were human," which could mean the song either took a turn for the absurd or is about the death (and funeral) of a loved one. Either way, it is the most moving song Murphy has made, and it only helps further the notion that he should be considered a great songwriter, not simply a skilled musician with a few studio tricks and the occasional clever quip. The closer, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," seals it: "New York, you're perfect, oh please don't change a thing/Your mild billionaire mayor's now convinced he's a king/And so the boring collect -- I mean all disrespect/In the neighborhood bars I'd once dreamt I would drink." If he keeps it up, he'll be writing songs for Pixar by 2020.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Chief

Eric Church
Contemporary country singer and songwriter Eric Church has been on a roll since 2006. He's had a slew of charting singles and albums, won Top New Solo Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards for 2010, and in early 2011, both the Caldwell County EP and "Homeboy" -- the pre-release single for Chief -- hit number 13 on the chart. That said, he hasn't reached the commercial heights -- yet -- that peers such as Jason Aldean and Justin Moore have. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Church is having it both ways: he scores consistently enough to keep his label interested, but also maintains his independence to a degree, which turns on his fans. Church co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs on Chief. Once more teamed with producer/guitarist/bandleader Jay Joyce, he delivers a collection that, on the one hand, stays close to his outlaw pose -- in the new contemporary country sense of the term -- while being firmly entrenched in the music's mainstream. "Homeboy" offers a taste of the kinds of streetwise characters Church seems to prefer to write and sing about (even if they are him at times), though the production is atypical of the rest of the set. “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” commences with a National Steel guitar and a thumping tom-tom before winding its way into neo-blues-rock before pulling in the reins; his lyrics bemoan the fact that an ex is getting married while he's left to get wasted alone. It's a new kind of "cryin' in your beer" song. “Drink in My Hand,” with its ringing, open '70s rock guitars (why does everyone these days ape the opening of Little Feat's "Easy to Slip?"), and sharp crackling snare, defiantly state that no matter how oppressive his boss is, he cannot ruin the experience of his own cold beer once the work day is done. "Springsteen" isn't so much about the Boss as it is a nostalgic ode to an early love and the memory of the legendary songwriter's music as an accompanying soundtrack to it. It's a clever, if somewhat cloying, tune, but it gets the feeling across in spades. "Country Music Jesus" is a paean and a prayer, a rockist wish for a "long haired hippie prophet who preaches from the book of Johnny Cash" to save what's left of the tradition, and then evokes the spirit of Charlie Daniels to underscore it. Chief is defiant, well-conceived, and more carefully executed than it sounds, with some excellent songs. While it doesn't break any new ground and remains firmly entrenched in contemporary country's geography, it evokes the riled-up, bluesy hard country rock sound of Hank Jr. enough that it separates Church from the genre's other practitioners who are attempting the same thing.

Sea Change

Beck
Beck has always been known for his ever-changing moods -- particularly since they often arrived one after another on one album, sometimes within one song -- yet the shift between the neon glitz of Midnite Vultures and the lush, somber Sea Change is startling, and not just because it finds him in full-on singer/songwriter mode, abandoning all of the postmodern pranksterism of its predecessor. What's startling about Sea Change is how it brings everything that's run beneath the surface of Beck's music to the forefront, as if he's unafraid to not just reveal emotions, but to elliptically examine them in this wonderfully melancholy song cycle. If, on most albums prior to this, Beck's music was a sonic kaleidoscope -- each song shifting familiar and forgotten sounds into colorful, unpredictable combinations -- this discards genre-hopping in favor of focus, and the concentration pays off gloriously, resulting in not just his best album, but one of the greatest late-night, brokenhearted albums in pop. This, as many reviews and promotional interviews have noted, is indeed a breakup album, but it's not a bitter listen; it has a wearily beautiful sound, a comforting, consoling sadness. His words are often evocative, but not nearly as evocative as the music itself, which is rooted equally in country-rock ("not" alt-country), early-'70s singer/songwriterism, and baroque British psychedelia. With producer Nigel Godrich, Beck has created a warm, enveloping sound, with his acoustic guitar supported by grand string arrangements straight out of Paul Buckmaster, eerie harmonies, and gentle keyboards among other subtler touches that give this record a richness that unveils more with each listen. Surely, some may bemoan the absence of the careening, free-form experimentalism of Odelay, but Beck's gifts as a songwriter, singer, and musician have never been as brilliant as they are here. As Sea Change is playing, it feels as if Beck singing to you alone, revealing painful, intimate secrets that mirror your own. It's a genuine masterpiece in an era with too damn few of them.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Eminem Show

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

Swan Songs (Explicit Version)

Hollywood Undead

Megalithic Symphony

AWOLNATION
Following his group sojourns with major-label projects Home Town Hero (on Maverick) and Under the Influence of Giants (on Island), Aaron Bruno resurfaces as a one-man band (albeit with a lot of help, including longtime partner Drew Stewart) under the name AWOLNATION on Megalithic Symphony. A megalith is a large stone, so a megalithic symphony would seem to be an ambitious suite of rock music, and the album fits its title if one interprets the ambition as an unfettered eclecticism and sense of whimsy, as tethered to constant dance beats. Bruno seems to have built his tracks up from the percussion patterns, and once he got the beats he liked, he was willing to put whatever came to hand or mind on top. That includes poppy melodies supporting nonsense lyrics sung in falsetto or a gritty tenor, with plenty of goofy electronic sounds in between. The "anything goes" quality takes in an odd spoken word track ("Some Sort of Creature") and tracks that recall everything from Prince to Men Without Hats. (Remember "The Safety Dance"?) It all comes together on the 15-minute closer, "Knights of Shame," which begins with Bruno imploring, "Dance, baby, like the world is ending," continues through various sections including a rap by Cameron Duddy, and ends, after a minute or so of silence, with a hidden track that finds Bruno strumming his acoustic guitar and croaking, "It's been a long time waiting for you." What does it all mean? Who knows? But Megalithic Symphony engages the ear from moment to moment and allows Aaron Bruno to try out a variety of ideas, many of them half-baked, but all of them entertaining.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Halfway To Heaven

Brantley Gilbert
It wouldn't be out of line to call Brantley Gilbert a country rocker or an outlaw country artist, but don't let those terms conjure nostalgic images of Willie and Waylon in your head, because they mean something different when applied to Gilbert's generation of Nashville rebels. For one thing, he's nobody's cowboy -- in an industry where image tells all, Gilbert's leather jacket, motorcycle, and close-shaved cranium make him look more likely to pal around with Rancid than with Tim McGraw, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. While Gilbert has cited the influence of fellow Georgians R.E.M. and the B-52's, these inspirations are inaudible on his second album, Halfway to Heaven. A more accurate assessment of his musical roots is made on his Southern pride anthem "Kick It In the Sticks," where he shouts out "AC/DC, Hank, Skynyrd, and George Strait" over huge, hard-rocking riffs worthy of the first name on that list. Exactly which Hank he's referring to is uncertain, because with an artist like Gilbert, it's just as likely to be the second or even the third. Of course, the equally tough-sounding "Country Must Be Country Wide" does indeed find Gilbert singing about radio stations "playin' Cash, Hank, Willie and Waylon," but the biting rock feel running throughout much of Halfway to Heaven suggests that those are bad-ass icons emblazoned on his personal Mt. Rushmore more than direct musical influences. Granted, romantic ballads like "My Kind of Crazy" and "Fall into Me" are the kind of tunes that seem tailor-made for the top of the country charts, and they're obviously a part of what Gilbert is about, but everything else about Halfway to Heaven seems to mark Gilbert as a rock & roll roughneck, albeit one with the requisite soft underbelly.

J. Allen, Rovi

Lungs

Florence & The Machine
Precocious Brit Florence Welch fired a bullet into the head of the U.K. music scene in 2008 with the single "Kiss with a Fist," a punk-infused, perfectly juvenile summer anthem that had critics wiping the names Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Kate Nash from their vocabularies and replacing them with Florence + the Machine. While the comparisons were apt at the time, "Kiss with a Fist" turned out to be a red herring in the wake of the release of Lungs, one of the most musically mature and emotionally mesmerizing albums of 2009. With an arsenal of weaponry that included the daring musicality of Kate Bush, the fearless delivery of Sinéad O'Connor, and the dark, unhinged vulnerability of Fiona Apple, the London native crafted a debut that not only lived up to the machine-gun spray of buzz that heralded her arrival, but easily surpassed it. Like Kate Bush, Welch has little interest (for the most part) in traditional pop structures, and her songs are at their best when they see something sparkle in the woods and veer off of the main trail in pursuit. "Kiss with a Fist," as good as it is, pales in comparison to standout cuts like "Dog Days Are Over," "Hurricane Drunk," "Drumming Song," "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)," and "Cosmic Love," all of which are anchored to the earth by Welch's knockout voice, a truly impressive and intuitive trio of producers, and a backing band that sounds as intimate with the material as its creator. [Lungs was also released in a Deluxe Edition that included Lungs: The B-Sides, a bonus disc featuring studio tracks like “Swimming,” “Falling,” and “Heavy in Your Arms,” the latter of which appeared on the soundtrack for Twilight Saga: Eclipse, as well as live cuts (“You've Got the Dirtee Love"), demos (“Ghosts”), and remixes (the "Yeasayer Remix" of “Dog Days Are Over").]

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

How Great Is Our God: The Essential Collection

Chris Tomlin
One of the most successful artists in the world of contemporary Christian music, Chris Tomlin has had ten number one Christian radio singles, and two of his albums have gone gold and one has gone platinum. Several of his praise & worship songs, like his first hit, “How Great Is Our God,” have become contemporary praise & worship standards. This set collects his key tracks, as well as new recordings of three of his classics, including an interesting new version of “How Great Is Our God” featuring guest appearances from several international worship leaders who sing parts of the song in their native languages.

Steve Leggett, Rovi