Top Albums

The Foundation

Zac Brown Band

Honest (Deluxe Edition)

Future

Tha Carter III

Lil' Wayne
An interesting story came out as Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV leaked to the Internet five days early. Special guest Busta Rhymes, being interviewed from his tour bus, had not even heard the leak within those first 48, and seemed fascinated to hear that Bun B, Nas, and Shyne were also on his track. This was in spite of the his line “Tunechi, thanks for giving us a whole 'nother classic with Tha Carter IV” the album's final words, delivered by Busta during the “Outro,” one of two tracks on which Wayne doesn’t even appear. Busta’s mix of excitement and confusion perfectly captures this album’s magic in that there’s an electricity in the air here, one so attractive that you don’t care about what’s missing, so don’t hold this up next to Tha Carter II or III because you just might miss a grand Jay-Z diss (“Talkin' about baby money, I got your baby money/ Kidnap your bitch, get that how much you love your lady money”) while considering the differences. If II and III were the arguable masterpieces, this one is less convincing, but it is a solid, above average hip-hop album that would be in held high and wide regard if it carried any other name. Wayne seems to address this new, sometimes B+ era with “Some of us are lovers/Most of y’all are haters/But I put up a wall/And they just wallpaper” on “Blunt Blowing,” a track which is Young Money’s seductive and flossy version of the blues. If dazzling rhetoric and shameless bombast is what grabs his audience, it absolutely overflows during the album’s unstoppable first quarter, which boils over when the short blue mobster called “Megaman” shoots forth “Life is shorter than Bushwick.” The totally T-Pain track “How to Hate” is the album’s first speedbump, and Wayne remains a guest on his own album as Tech N9ne and Rick Ross dominate the following cuts, but the uncontroversial “Abortion” (“I know your name, your name is unimportant/We in the belly of the beast, and she thinkin’ of abortion”) puts the spotlight back on Weezy. After John Legend adds some purposeful polish, it’s all smooth sailing plus with those high Carter standards, bouncing between tracks fans can singalong and connect with (the pure and simple “How to Love”) or marvel at (“It’s Good” where Jay-Z diss meets Alan Parsons sample). In the end, Busta’s pre-cog declaration of “classic” is the download generation’s more “in the moment” definition of the word, and it is fittingly delivered while the venerated Wizard Weezy is out the door and off the track in that “pay no mind to that man behind the curtain” style. On Tha Carter IV, Wayne’s world feels more like a dream than reality, but the loyal subjects of Young Money get a wild ride and the great feeling of flashing those ruby slippers one more time. [The Deluxe Edition added three bonus tracks, including "Mirror" featuring Bruno Mars.]

The Legend Of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash
The Legend of Johnny Cash is billed as the "first ever complete career spanning collection," which is true to a certain extent -- other collections cover territory from 1955 to 2003, but this is the first to contain everything from Sun to Cash's Rick Rubin-produced comeback recordings for American in the '90s and 2000s. Since the biggest complaint that could be lodged against the otherwise excellent 2005 box The Legend -- which, despite appearances to the contrary, is an entirely different compilation -- was that it contained none of these Rubin-produced records, it would seem like The Legend Of would be a bit of a godsend, but that's not necessarily true. If The Legend contained too little of Cash's American recordings, The Legend Of contains too many. At 21 tracks it would seem like this would contain most of Cash's signature songs, and while it does contain a great many of them, it's hampered by the whopping six songs devoted to his American recordings -- add to the mix the 1993 Cash-sung U2 cut "The Wanderer" and "Highwayman" by Cash's outlaw supergroup with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, and that's just a little under half of the disc devoted to music made after his prime. Not just that, but the music he made after he left Columbia partway through the '80s often does not sit well with his classic Sun and Columbia records -- as soon as the synths and big drums of "Highwayman" kick in, the feel of the music changes. While Rubin's work doesn't sound as completely foreign as the icy Euro-rock textures of "The Wanderer" -- as "Rusty Cage" and "I've Been Everywhere," the two selections from 1996's excellent Unchained prove, Rubin knew how to revitalize Cash's signature sound (tellingly, those are the only Rubin-helmed sessions where Cash was supported by a full band) -- there is simply too much of it here, particularly because the stark, monochromatic acoustic readings of "Delia's Gone" and "Give My Love to Rose" sound neutered compared to the versions Cash cut with the Tennessee Two. Also, such a heavy representation of these American recordings makes the collection lopsided, suggesting that these later works were as good, if not better, than the music that made his fame, fortune, and legend (a suggestion strengthened by the fact that Rubin is the only producer who gets a back-cover billing), which is not the case -- Cash's liveliest, deepest, and best music remains what he cut in the '50s and '60s. And while just over half of this compilation is devoted to that music -- all the big hits are hauled out once again -- there still is too much latter-day material for this to be an entirely accurate, satisfying collection (particularly with such big hits as "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Five Feet High and Rising," "Daddy Sang Bass," and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," among other signature tunes, missing). That said, for a brief one-stop overview of Cash's career, this is pretty good -- comps that concentrate solely on the Sun and Columbia eras are more consistent, but this has most of the big singles, which will certainly fill the needs of those who want a compilation that covers a lot of ground.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The New Classic (Deluxe Version)

Iggy Azalea

Eliminator

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

Strange Clouds

B.o.B
B.o.B's sophomore effort is missing that little bit of humility that made his debut (2010's The Adventures of Bobby Ray) so approachable, and when you come out of the gate nailing such a wide variety of pop-rap, asking for growth is asking for a lot. On this sophomore effort, B.o.B sounds like the same guy who delivered that debut and with the same set of skills (good lyrics, great pathos, and great punch lines) and aspirations (big across the board), just after numerous nights of bottle service, living in a platinum dream world where Dr. Luke and Lil Wayne contribute to your hazy highlight title track, and where mega-star Taylor Swift replaces Hayley Williams on the worthy "Airplanes" follow-up, "Both of Us." Later it's Nicki Minaj acting like a malfunctioning robot on the hip thrill ride called "Out of My Mind," followed by alt-rocker Ryan Tedder on the warm and cozy morning affirmation titled "Never Let You Go," but B.o.B isn't just influenced by the styles of his guests and is willing to bump a solo strip-club number ("Ray Bands") next to a solo soul-searcher ("So Hard to Breathe") as if albums were always executed like trapeze acts. Combine well funded and well crafted along with the rapper's "no frontin'" attitude -- sometimes he really wants to ease problems, and sometimes he really wants to be at a strip club -- and it starts to come together, plus when Morgan Freeman delivers that big, heavy-handed intro with barely a smirk, B.o.B's choice of audacious over ironic is refreshing. This is bold pop-rap at an "Arena" level, and while partying like a rock star means cohesiveness takes a hit, Strange Clouds is still thrilling and persuasive.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Testimony (Deluxe)

August Alsina

Nashville: On The Record (Live)

Nashville Cast

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best Of Lynyrd Syknyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Like any record company worth their salt, MCA knows a good gimmick when they see it, and when the millennium came around -- well, the 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection wasn't too far behind. Supposedly, the millennium is a momentous occasion, but it's hard to feel that way when it's used as another excuse to turn out a budget-line series. But apart from the presumptuous title, 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection turns out to be a very good budget-line series. True, it's impossible for any of these brief collections to be definitive, but they're nevertheless solid samplers that don't feature a bad song in the bunch. For example, take Lynyrd Skynyrd's 20th Century volume -- it's an irresistible ten-song summary of their MCA years. There may be a couple of noteworthy songs missing, but many of their best-known songs are here, including "Sweet Home Alabama," "What's Your Name," "Gimme Three Steps," "You Got That Right," "Saturday Night Special," "That Smell," and "Free Bird." Serious fans will want something more extensive, but this is an excellent introduction for neophytes and a great sampler for casual fans, considering its length and price. That doesn't erase the ridiculousness of the series title, but the silliness is excusable when the music and the collections are good.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Wildflowers

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Marshall Mathers LP2 (Deluxe)

Eminem

Paper Trail

T.I.
House arrest would likely slow anyone's daily routine. It probably played a factor in T.I.'s decision to write down his rhymes for the first time since his debut. A year of jail time on the horizon would, just the same, impact a writer's output, and it has done just that on Paper Trail. Plenty of these tracks have nothing to do with T.I.'s federal weapons conviction -- escapist fare like the number one Hot 100 single "Whatever You Like" and the mindnumbing "Porn Star," where he's barely coasting -- but there is a sense of urgency and a new dimension of self-reflection not touched upon throughout the holding pattern that was T.I. vs T.I.P. And when he's just battling, as on "I'm Illy," he reaches a level of indignant rage that manages to top that of "I'm Talkin' to You." The M.I.A.-sampling, Kanye West-produced "Swagga Like Us" features verses from Jay-Z, West, and Lil Wayne, but its chunky, rugged, alien beat could've hit even harder with just T.I., whose pent-up swagger makes for the best vocal fit. The cut with multiple features that is deserving of even more talk is "On Top of the World," where B.o.B. and (especially) Ludacris complement atypical wealth-related T.I. boasts like "Cousins in college -- where you think they get tuition from?" The production work also helps place the album above T.I. vs T.I.P.; Toomp's return provides some much needed punch, as does Danja's slow motion, almost bluesy, organ-drenched beat for "No Matter What." [This edition was sold exclusively at Circuit City.]

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Sail Out

Jhené Aiko

Crash My Party

Luke Bryan

Back For The First Time

Ludacris
When Def Jam signed Ludacris in 2000, the Atlanta rapper had already released a regionally successful independent album (Incognegro) with a hot single ("What's Your Fantasy"). So rather than send Ludacris back into the studio to record a follow-up album, Def Jam chose to repackage Incognegro as Back for the First Time (the title a play on the re-released nature of the music) and append some new material. The decision proved wise. Incognegro had been a strong album debut, produced largely by talented newcomer Shondrae, along with Organized Noize (who produce "Game Got Switched") and Jermaine Dupri ("Get Off Me"), and featuring a roster of hungry underground rappers (I-20, Fat Wilson, Shawnna, Pastor Troy, 4-Ize). Plus, "What's Your Fantasy" was already a proven hit, if perhaps too explicit for mainstream radio play. The real difference between Incognegro and Back for the First Time, however, is the newly recorded material -- four songs, each a standout: the Neptunes-produced club-banger "Southern Hospitality," the previously released Timbaland-produced "Phat Rabbit," the rowdy U.G.K.-featuring "Stick 'Em Up," and the provocative Trina and Foxy Brown remix of "What's Your Fantasy." The most significant of these additions is "Southern Hospitality," a feel-good party song that -- sequenced late in the album, at track 14 -- comes as a pleasant relief after the proceeding up-from-the-underground hardcore tone of Incognegro/Back for the First Time. [The clean version edits all moments of profanity.]

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Word Of Mouf

Ludacris
Ludacris' second album for Def Jam, Word of Mouf, is a superstar affair that aims for mass appeal with a broad array of different styles. Nearly every track features some sort of collaborator, either hitmaking producers like Timbaland and Organized Noize, big-name rappers like Mystikal and Twista, hook-singing crooners like Nate Dogg and Jagged Edge, or fellow Disturbing tha Peace group members I-20, Shawnna, Lil' Fate, and Tity Boi -- and sometimes a combinations of these various ingredients. The resulting album is surely impressive, propelled by lively production, colorful guests, and an omnipresent touch of humor. More hilarious than before, Ludacris lightens his lyrical style here, leaving behind much of thuggishness that had characterized his previous album, Back for the First Time, in favor of witty puns and sly innuendoes. A particularly humorous highlight is the previously released (on the Rush Hour 2 soundtrack) single "Area Codes," a tongue-twisting, good-spirited Jazze Pha production. Less humorous though likewise standout is the lead single, "Rollout (My Business)," a rallying Timbaland production with a simple yet inescapable hook. Other highlights include the Organized Noize-produced booty-shaker "Saturday (Oooh Oooh!)," the Jagged Edge-sung "Freaky Thangs," and the Beats by the Pound-esque posse track "Move Bitch." There's also a hidden bonus track here that's likewise an explosive collaboration, the Jermaine Dupri-led "Welcome to Atlanta." There are a lot of highlights here; however, amid all of these various team-ups you do lose a little bit of the sincere, personal edge that had characterized much of Ludacris' debut. Even so, it's overall a worthy exchange, since there's something here on Word of Mouf for everyone, signaling Ludacris' leap from the Dirty South underground to the pop-rap mass market. [A Japanese version added a bonus track.]

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

I And Love And You

The Avett Brothers
Fans held their breath when Rick Rubin took the Avett Brothers under his wing. What would the co-head of Columbia Records -- a man known for recording rap-rock albums and resurrecting Johnny Cash's late career -- do with a small-time folk trio? The answer is "relatively nothing," as the band's major-label debut continues charting the same musical course as Emotionalism and Mignonette. The Avett Brothers have expanded their reach since 2000, adding elements of pop and hillbilly country-rock to a bluegrass foundation, and they carry on that tradition with I and Love and You, whose songs introduce a new emphasis on piano and nuanced arrangements. Working with a major label's budget allows the group to add small flourishes -- a cello line here, a keyboard crescendo there -- but the resulting music is hardly grand, focusing on textures rather than volume. Scott and Seth Avett share vocals throughout the album, delivering their lyrics in a speak-sing cadence that, at its best, sounds both tuneful and conversational. Given the opportunities presented here -- the ability to add strings, organs, and harmonium to the mix -- the two devote more time to slower songs, which display those sonic details better. The result is an intimate, poignant album, laced with rich production that often takes as much spotlight as the songwriting itself.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Pop Psychology

Neon Trees

Number One Hits

Tim McGraw
Two years after releasing Greatest Hits, Vol. 3, Tim McGraw put out Number One Hits -- a double-disc distillation of 24 of his biggest hits. Naturally, not every one of his charting singles fit under this rubric, but Number One Hits sticks to the parameters of its title more faithfully than most discs of this nature, including only chart-toppers along with the requisite new cut “Feels Good on My Lips.” Although the sequencing is bewilderingly non-chronological, hop-scotching from one decade to another, Number One Hits does serve up all the high points from McGraw's career, and hints at his range, making this the best overview of his work yet assembled.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Automatic For The People

R.E.M.
Turning away from the sweet pop of Out of Time, R.E.M. created a haunting, melancholy masterpiece with Automatic for the People. At its core, the album is a collection of folk songs about aging, death, and loss, but the music has a grand, epic sweep provided by layers of lush strings, interweaving acoustic instruments, and shimmering keyboards. Automatic for the People captures the group at a crossroads, as they moved from cult heroes to elder statesmen, and the album is a graceful transition into their new status. It is a reflective album, with frank discussions on mortality, but it is not a despairing record -- "Nightswimming," "Everybody Hurts," and "Sweetness Follows" have a comforting melancholy, while "Find the River" provides a positive sense of closure. R.E.M. have never been as emotionally direct as they are on Automatic for the People, nor have they ever created music quite as rich and timeless, and while the record is not an easy listen, it is the most rewarding record in their oeuvre.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

A Decade Of Hits 1969-1979

The Allman Brothers Band
The record industry's blatantly greedy ploy of remastering and "upgrading" CDs is shameful. The sonics are usually improved, but the CDs could have been mastered properly the first time. But then fans wouldn't buy the same titles twice. The Allman Brothers Band's indispensable compilation A Decade of Hits 1969-1979 was reissued in 2000, just nine years after the original release. The remastered 2000 edition still features the same 16 songs, but the packaging and liner notes include an essay by Guitar World journalist Alan Paul, photos, and detailed recording credits. It would be easy to argue that individual albums like Idlewild South, Live at Fillmore East, Eat a Peach, or Brothers and Sisters are more cohesive artistic statements, but no self-respecting rock & roll fan should be without a copy of A Decade of Hits 1969-1979, which includes the cream of those albums. It's impossible to go wrong with one CD featuring Gregg Allman's harrowing "Whipping Post" and gorgeous "Midnight Rider," Dickey Betts' soaring "Ramblin' Man," and the lovely instrumentals "Jessica" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," let alone the blues covers "Statesboro Blues" and "One Way Out," which many people probably don't realize are covers because the band embodies them so much. Fans shouldn't have much of a problem recognizing the 2000 version. The cover featuring the band logo stitched on the denim jacket is still intact, but the white lettering is laid out a little differently on both the front and back covers. Plus, the shrink-wrap has an identifying sticker. Better still, just look at the copyright date. The first pressing's liner notes include a typographical error; there's a noticeable gap within the essay text where the Enlightened Rogues title is missing.

Bret Adams, Rovi

RetroHash

Asher Roth

My Krazy Life (Deluxe)

YG

Here's To The Good Times...This Is How We Roll

Florida Georgia Line
True to its name, country duo Florida Georgia Line comprises a Floridian (Brian Kelley) and a Georgia boy (Tyler Hubbard), who first took Nashville (and the rest of the nation) by storm with their 2012 EP, It'z Just What We Do. The pair's full-length debut, Here's to the Good Times, is cut from the same stylistic cloth as the EP, furthering the seamless incorporation of R&B production techniques into a modern country format. You could consider Here's to the Good Times the big brother to Taylor Swift's contemporaneous, dance pop-tinged Red, with a fair share of power balladry ("Stay," "Hell Raisin' Heat of the Summer") and crunching, country-rock guitar riffs ("It'z Just What We Do," "Tip It Back") added in to ensure things never get monochromatic.

Talk Dirty

Jason Derulo

G I R L

Pharrell Williams

Night Visions

Imagine Dragons
Even though Night Visions has several repackaged tunes from Imagine Dragons' previous EPs, including the instantly appealing breakthrough hit "It's Time," the band's debut LP is a confident, commercially savvy collection of energetic hooks, crunchy electro beats and glossy synthesizers. With sweeping choruses and booming bass, it's big-sounding party rock, but the savvy, kitchen-sink production of Alex da Kid makes other would-be singles like "Bleeding Out" and "Tiptoe" as interesting as they are overwhelming. Even though under all the layers there are occasionally pockets of pure cheese ("With the beast inside, there's nowhere we can hide," Dan Reynolds sings on "Demons"), the scope of the band's full-length debut leaves a big impression.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Aquemini

OutKast
Even compared to their already excellent and forward-looking catalog, OutKast's sprawling third album, Aquemini, was a stroke of brilliance. The chilled-out space-funk of ATLiens had already thrown some fans for a loop, and Aquemini made it clear that its predecessor was no detour, but a stepping stone for even greater ambitions. Some of ATLiens' ethereal futurism is still present, but more often Aquemini plants its feet on the ground for a surprisingly down-home flavor. The music draws from a vastly eclectic palette of sources, and the live instrumentation is fuller-sounding than ATLiens. Most importantly, producers Organized Noize imbue their tracks with a Southern earthiness and simultaneous spirituality that come across regardless of what Dre and Big Boi are rapping about. Not that they shy away from rougher subject matter, but their perspective is grounded and responsible, intentionally avoiding hardcore clichés. Their distinctive vocal deliveries are now fully mature, with a recognizably Southern rhythmic bounce but loads more technique than their territorial peers. Those flows grace some of the richest and most inventive hip-hop tracks of the decade. The airy lead single "Rosa Parks" juxtaposes front-porch acoustic guitar with DJ scratches and a stomping harmonica break that could have come from nowhere but the South. Unexpected touches like that are all over the record: the live orchestra on "Return of the 'G'"; the electronic, George Clinton-guested "Synthesizer"; the reggae horns and dub-style echo of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"; the hard-rocking wah-wah guitar of "Chonkyfire"; and on and on. What's most impressive is the way everything comes together to justify the full-CD running time, something few hip-hop epics of this scope ever accomplish. After a few listens, not even the meditative jams on the second half of the album feel all that excessive. Aquemini fulfills all its ambitions, covering more than enough territory to qualify it as a virtuosic masterpiece, and a landmark hip-hop album of the late '90s.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Recess

Skrillex

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection

George Strait
George Strait himself chose the 12 number one country hits included in this midline-priced compilation, which presents digitally remastered tracks. The hits ranged from "You Look So Good in Love," which topped the charts at the start of 1984, to "Easy Come, Easy Go," a number one in October 1993. During this period, an additional 11 Strait singles also reached the country summit, so this is just a sampling. Some of his biggest hits (i.e., ones that stayed at number one longer) -- such as "Love Without End, Amen" and "I've Come to Expect It From You" -- are included, while others -- such as "You Know Me Better Than That" and "If I Knew Me" -- are not. In the less easily quantifiable category of signature songs, again some are included, notably "All My Ex's Live in Texas," while others, such as "Ocean Front Property," are missing. So Strait easily could come up with a second volume for 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection without even getting too far into the 1990s. And he probably will.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Love In The Future (Deluxe Edition)

John Legend

Pure Heroine

Lorde

Mastermind (Deluxe)

Rick Ross

The Outsiders

Eric Church

You Make Me Brave (Live)

Bethel Music

Horehound (Standard)

The Dead Weather
Expectations for a project featuring members of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Kills, and Queens of the Stone Age would almost have to run high. After all, these are all bands that find ways to draw on the classic tenets of rock without sounding completely indebted to the past. Yet the Dead Weather -- which combines the talents of Jack White, Jack Lawrence, Alison Mosshart, and Dean Fertita -- aren't so much concerned with living up to expectations as they are about defying them. There's a different kind of alchemy on Horehound than on any of the bandmembers' other projects. Not only does White returns to his first instrument, the drums, he also trades in the high-pitched yelp he uses with the Stripes and Raconteurs for a deeper, at-times unrecognizable, voice on "I Cut Like a Buffalo," the lone Horehound track he wrote by himself. The Dead Weather's sound isn't so much heavy as it is thick with a tense atmosphere that's sustained throughout most of the album, and the group shuns the tighter structures of their other bands for a bluesy, jammy grind. Horehound's opening track, "60 Feet Tall," shows just how explosive this sound can be, from the teasing guitars and percussion that begin it to its lunging climax. Sexual tension is one of the few constants between the Dead Weather and White and Mosshart's other bands, and they use it particularly well on "Hang You from the Heavens" and "Treat Me Like Your Mother," where their vocals and the lyrics "left, right, left, right" suggest a dance, or a fight, or something in between. Despite all the star power in this project, Mosshart's vocals are the main attraction: she snarls, croons, and sighs, displaying all the charisma she has in the Kills plus more nuance. She takes her voice to places she hasn't explored with her main project: "So Far from Your Weapon," which she wrote on her own, boasts an hypnotic groove and an oddly jazzy undercurrent, thanks to her smoky singing and White's rolling drums. Indeed, her voice and White's are usually the loudest elements on the album, with Fertita and Lawrence ably filling in the gaps between the pair's towering presences. Horehound's loose-limbed immediacy often feels like a particularly inspired rehearsal, especially on the cover of Bob Dylan's "New Pony," which gets amped up with huge grungy riffs and shouted backing vocals. This looseness also allows the band to indulge flights of fancy like the instrumental "3 Birds" and "Rocking Horse"'s menacing surf-jazz. However, the Dead Weather's chemistry fizzles on the more unfocused tracks, and as gripping as their sound is, it can get claustrophobic. The songs that break from the pack are among the best. "Bone House" layers programmed and live drums with creepy falsetto vocals and some great guitar work from Fertita, and "Will There Be Enough Water?"'s drifting acoustic blues provides the calm after Horehound's storm. Given the fact that the Dead Weather formed on a whim and recorded these songs in a matter of weeks, Horehound is a compelling album, and one that shows that the band's members bring out the best in each other, albeit in unexpected ways.

Heather Phares, Rovi

By Any Means

Kevin Gates

Blake Shelton

Blake Shelton
This impressive ten-song compilation is an earnest debut full of lots of promise and originality. Shelton delivers a wealth of traditional country music in its most honest-to-goodness form, with his young, delightful cowboy-esque charm. The Oklahoma-bred Shelton sure can fire off a tune with the sincerest tenacity. Notables include "Austin," a tremendously imaginative song about getting back together with someone by leaving messages for one another on their answering machines; "I Thought There Was Time" about neglecting a relationship; and "Same Old Song" about an artist looking for some originality in country music today. Along with producer Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E") and Shelton's "all-time musical hero," writer Earle Thomas Conley, the cast is rounded out on an album destined for musical greatness.

Maria Konicki Dinoia, Rovi

Because The Internet

Childish Gambino

American Beauty

Bruce Springsteen

21

Adele
Adele wrote much of the material on her sophomore album, 21, and her vocals and lyrics deliver from new depths, earning wide acclaim as one of the year's best. The opening track "Rolling in the Deep" was Adele's first number-one hit in the U.S., and wails like a dark disco classic. The scorned anthem sets the tone for a collection of soul songs still brittle from a breakup. On the Rick Rubin-produced "Don't You Remember," Adele affirms: "I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness, and a wandering eye…" Another standout, "Someone Like You," stings with the rawness of remaining in love with someone who's moved on, particularly the lingering punch line: "Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead."

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Nothing Was The Same (Deluxe)

Drake

Shakira.

Shakira

La Gárgola

Chevelle

Based on a True Story... (Deluxe Version)

Blake Shelton
A few months before he released his seventh album, Based on a True Story..., Blake Shelton weathered a minor storm over comments he made to GAC's "Backstory", where he claimed "nobody wants to listen to their grandpa's music." Shelton further explained "old farts" "don't buy records anymore...the kids do, and they don't want to buy the music that you were buying." At 36 years old, Shelton isn't exactly a kid, but he sure has his finger on the pulse of what America is all about in 2013, a perspective that informs every cut on Based on a True Story.... Not so coincidentally in terms of attitude, this is the first album Shelton has made since turning into a genuine crossover star thanks to his role on the televised competition "The Voice" -- Red River Blue, his last album, appeared just a month after the first season of "The Voice" wrapped -- and it reflects his newfound popularity via its reliance on rocking rhythms, woolly mammoth hooks, red state swagger, and pristine power ballads, all protected in a high-gloss coat of studio varnish. Some of that varnish includes a dose of heavy Auto-Tune on Blake's voice, a bit of trickery he doesn't need -- there's a reason why he's a judge on a singing competition; he has an easy, natural grace to his delivery -- but its artificially correct sound is simply another indication of the thoroughly modern Shelton: few other country albums of 2012-2013 are as unabashedly of the moment as this, celebrating all of the U.S.A. from the fame-hungry Sunset Strip to parties in the boondocks. By playing to both the high and low brow, Shelton consolidates the entire spectrum of his audience, from the country to the coasts. Both audiences buy into his increasingly macho strut, where he tosses out casual profanities, brags that he's "Still Got a Finger" (to flip you the bird, of course), and salutes his redneck brothers via the rapped "chew tobacco/chew tobacco/chew tobacco/spit" chorus of "Boys 'Round Here." That Shelton can pull off this big, swinging bravado isn't much of a surprise -- when his voice trills electronically on "Small Town Big Time" he makes it sound like a joke -- and the very sense that more is more is essential to the appeal of Based on a True Story...: every song is bigger, brighter, bolder than the next, super-sized country for a super-sized time.

Tha Carter

Lil' Wayne

Crazysexycool

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

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Heartbeat

Da' T.R.U.T.H.

16 Biggest Hits

Charlie Daniels
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better single-disc Charlie Daniels Band greatest-hits compilation than 16 Biggest Hits, which indeed lives up to its billing, rounding up a balanced selection of hits that span from 1973 to 1989 -- from "Uneasy Rider" to "(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks." Granted, the Charlie Daniels of the mid-'70s sounds a lot rawer than the Charlie Daniels of the mid- to late '80s, with some listeners no doubt preferring the rowdiness of the former to the polished appeal of the latter, and vice versa. But either way, it's nice to have such a range of music represented here on 16 Biggest Hits, because it showcases how the Charlie Daniels Band -- and, by extension, country music altogether -- evolved over the decades, getting steadily streamlined for broader appeal. The Essential Charlie Daniels Band, released a few years earlier, has a lot in common with 16 Biggest Hits, though at only 14 tracks and non-chronologically sequenced, it's slightly inferior. The chronological sequencing of 16 Biggest Hits is key, for it plays out like history itself, as Charlie Daniels grew from his Southern rock and outlaw country roots -- best exemplified by Fire on the Mountain (1974), represented here by three songs -- to his flag-waving anthems of the '80s like "In America," "Still in Saigon," and "(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks." Of course, there are a lot more Charlie Daniels Band highlights than the 16 here, but few were bigger than these. And if indeed you're looking for a more definitive collection of music, The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band is recommended, offering 30 songs over the course of two discs, and also Roots Remain, an all-encompassing 45-song triple-disc set including rarities.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

The Wrong Side Of Heaven And The Righteous Side Of Hell (Volume 2)

Five Finger Death Punch
The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2 is the fifth studio album by American heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch and the second of two albums released by the band in 2013, with Volume 1 having been released on July 30. It was released on November 19, 2013. Preorders for the album went up on iTunes on August 10, 2013.

~ Provided by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wrong_Side_of_Heaven_and_the_Righteous_Side_of_Hell,_Volume_2) under Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)

Live From The Underground

Big Krit
Every iteration of rap eventually finds its revivalists and '90s Southern Rap has finally has one in Big Krit. The Mississippi rapper/producer spends most of his debut trying to resurrect the soulful sensibility of legends like Eightball & MJG, Outkast and UGK, whose Pimp C appears to be the direct blueprint for Krit's snarl. He never quite manages to transcend these influences, as he lacks both the personality and personal insight that propelled them. Still, his knack for bluesy, emotive and trunk rattling productions is usually enough to compensate. He may be a nostalgia act but at least he's a well polished one.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Ridin' Dirty

UGK
UGK's third album, Ridin' Dirty, is their first to be released by a major label, which gives you some sort of indication of how far the group has gone in four short years. In that span of time, UGK scaled to the top of the small but vicious hip-hop scene in the Southern United States, creating a distinctive gangsta hybrid in the process. UGK is just as hedonistic and materialistic as those rappers out on the West Coast, but they don't infuse their music with the deep funk of the Cali scene, nor do they revel in the buoyant bass of their Miami brethren. Instead, they take a more stripped-down approach, which is all the better to hear their celebrations of money, drugs, women -- all of the typical gangsta accessories. If UGK doesn't really have something new to say, at least they have come up with an engaging way to say it -- the sound of their record is vibrant and direct, bringing you right into the thick of things. It's not exceptional gangsta rap, but it is entertaining.

Leo Stanley, Rovi

Time Travelers & Bonfires

Sevendust

Tha Carter II

Lil' Wayne
An appropriately titled album, Tha Carter II builds on the Lil Wayne of the first Carter, the Lil Wayne who was not only cocky, but also truly confident, confident enough to loosen up his rhymes and create a winning mixture of slick baller posturing and slippery flippancy. If the first Carter found him somewhere between a crazed Silkk the Shocker and a thuggish Devin the Dude, the excellent follow-up finds him more toward the latter. Take "Money on My Mind," a track that covers the usual "get money" territory but this time with scatological whimsy and off-the-wall rhymes that would make Tracy Morgan proud. This uninhibited style is also the reason the many hookless, freestyle-ish tracks work, and while these hardcore, mixtape-sounding numbers may alienate those who don't appreciate dirty street music, they balance the slicker club singles. Recalling the gutter hits of the Hot Boys -- the crew where Lil Wayne spent his teen years -- the stomping "Fireman" was rightfully lighting up the request lines at the album's release, but the rest of the radio-worthy polish -- "Grown Man," "Hustler Music," and "Get Over" -- is much more soulful, with smooth R&B in its heart rather than tacked-on to land it on the play list. For longtime fans of Lil Wayne or the Cash Money label, the absence of regular producer Mannie Fresh is worth noting, but the Heatmakerz along with Tmix & Batman offer plenty of brilliant grime and glitter while two newcomers deliver the curveballs. Producer Yonny loops a reggae bounce and makes the smoking song "Mo Fire" drip out of the speakers like the dankest sticky-icky while Thicke -- as in Alan Thicke's son -- reprises his slinkiest number from his overlooked 2003 album Beautiful World for "Shooter," arguably the most adventurous and stylish Lil Wayne song yet. Lyrical triumphs like the epic "Tha Mobb" and the pimp-hand-showing "Receipt" seal the deal, leaving only the short, ignorable skits and the black-on-red printing in the liner notes to complain about (the latter is hell on the eyeballs). The sturdy Carter II caps off a year when the man was appointed president of Cash Money by founders Birdman and Ronald "Slim" Williams, then watched his 17th Ward, New Orleans, neighborhood destroyed by hurricane Katrina -- something bitterly touched upon during "Feel Me"'s FEMA dis, but most likely too late for press time for most tracks. The well-rounded, risk-taking, but true-to-its-roots album suggests he can weather the highs and lows like a champion and that Birdman and Slim knew something everyone else didn't when they bet the farm on the formerly "raw talent," now "fully formed" Lil Wayne.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Rivers In The Wasteland

NEEDTOBREATHE

Welcome to the New

MercyMe