As a songwriter for other contemporary pop stars, Ryan Tedder has proven his talent for writing intensely catchy songs that stick in people's heads. This is evidenced not only by his success producing songs for such artists as Adele, Leona Lewis, and Maroon 5, but also with his own band OneRepublic. And as with 2006's Dreaming Out Loud and 2009's Waking Up, One Republic's 2013 third studio album, Native, once again gives Tedder a vehicle to turn his hitmaking abilities on himself, and in the process, steal just a little bit of the spotlight away from his more recognizable clients. And why shouldn't he? Tedder has a burnished, resonant singing voice and passionate, emotive vocal style that's perfectly suited for the uplifting crossover songs he so expertly writes. In many ways, OneRepublic are a clearing house for mainstream pop sensibilities, and Native is no exception, with songs such as "If I Lose Myself Again," "I Lived," and "Au Revoir," touching upon the soaring, piano-driven alt-rock of Coldplay, the funky, synthetic, blue-eyed-soul of Maroon 5, and the slick yet earnest R&B balladry of any number of modern divas. Which isn't to say that the songs on Native are unremarkable. On the contrary, Tedder reveals a broad palette of stylistic inspiration, and cuts like the roiling, romantic "Light It Up" and the atmospheric and yearning "Can't Stop" touch upon the ruminative qualities of indie rock, the falsetto-heavy tones of Prince-styled lead vocals, and the wide-eyed drama of '80s Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Elsewhere on Native, tracks like "Counting Starts" reveal that Tedder has clearly been listening to the British folk-rockers Mumford & Sons and, as evidenced by the percussive operatic of "Feel Again," Florence and the Machine. Of course, with Tedder having possibly worked with any one of the artists mentioned here prior to recording Native, one could argue that he's merely been listening to his own music. Ultimately, that music, as heard on Native, remains as catchy as ever.
Matt Collar, Rovi
Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton, is a solid collection of the country singer's singles, hits, and favorites from his five studio full-lengths, and the two six-track EPs he released in the latter year. Fifteen tracks deep, it begins with the two cuts that put him on contemporary country's radar -- "Ol Red" and "Austin" -- from his self-titled debut album in 2001. The Dreamer, from 2003, is represented by the its two best cuts, "The Baby," and the classic "Playboys of the Southwestern World." There are three from 2004's Blake Shelton's Bar & Grill, including Shawn Camp's stellar "Nobody But Me," and Shelton's reading of the Conway Twitty smash "Goodbye Time." Pure BS, from 2007, is showcased by a pair of numbers, including "The More I Drink" and a third, "Home," comes from the deluxe edition of album. There's a solid version of "She Wouldn't Be Gone" from 2008's Startin' Fires to round things out. The first 11 tracks were a given, and Shelton's annotations in the booklet make a solid case for their inclusion. That said, Shelton also tacks on the title track from the Hillbilly Bone, "Six Pack," as well as "Kiss My Country Ass" from the same set. Further, "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking" and the title track from the second EP are here. All four of these songs were released earlier in the calendar year, making their appearances seem redundant at best and, frankly, like a cynical money grab at worst. Oftentimes, less really is more.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
Released to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.'s death, Greatest Hits places the two "collaborate with a dead legend" albums -- 1999's Born Again and 2005's Duets: The Final Chapter -- on equal ground with Ready to Die and Life After Death, the two landmark albums Biggie released while he was on the planet. Anthologizing one of the most compelling figures in hip-hop history seems like a right thing to do. Basing such a release around four albums that are greatly divided between essential and inessential, however, amounts to something of a mess. Two obscurities are used where it would've made much more sense to select "Mo Money, Mo Problems" and "Going Back to Cali," two of the biggest hits not included on this disc, and it's really off-balance to include three tracks from Born Again when only one more is pulled directly from Ready to Die. Longtime fans need not go near this; the same goes for beginners, who should reach for Ready to Die. [The 2007 Japanese edition included one bonus track.]
Linkin Park got pretty moody on 2010's A Thousand Suns, settling into a sulky electronica groove that pretty much screamed "growing pains" to anybody who listened closely. On its 2012 sequel, Living Things, Linkin Park attempts to graft guitars back onto their newly mature musical outlook, and the reintroduction of visceral force certainly helps give this album a pulse lacking on A Thousand Suns. It's hardly a step back to the old angst-ridden rap-rockers of the turn of the millennium, however. Admirably, Linkin Park revels in a near-middle-aged angst, letting their songs address adult concerns and giving their productions contours and texture; the additional noise isn't an expression of fury, it's used to enhance the drama. Generally, the songs feel sharper on Living Things -- there is definition to their structure, some of the choruses catch hold without too much effort -- but this album remains one of sustained mood, not individual moments. And in that regard, Living Things handily trumps A Thousand Suns: it doesn't stay still, it peaks and ebbs, flowing steadily between brooding and explosions of repressed rage, a fitting soundtrack for aging rap-rockers who are comfortable in their skin but restless at heart.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
After releasing huge hits on Steve Aoki's Dim Mak and Skrillex's OWSLA labels, 23-year-old Zedd unleashes an album's worth of peak-time dance-pop gold. Most of these 10 tracks mesh heartfelt ballads with huge, clubby sounds: Ellie Goulding candy-coats the electrostep monster "Fall Into the Sky," Bright Lights sounds silvery over the soaring progressive house number "Follow You Down," and the title track melds Foxes' breakup lyrics, a men's chorus and huge drum buildups into a cheery dancefloor sing-along. If you prefer more hypnotic vibes, "Stache" and "Shave It Up" are heavy-hitting floor-fillers. With a surprising wealth of ideas and melodies for such a young producer, don't be surprised if Zedd is soon giving Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia a run for their money.
Vivian Host, Google Play
Paranoid was not only Black Sabbath's most popular record (it was a number one smash in the U.K., and "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" both scraped the U.S. charts despite virtually nonexistent radio play), it also stands as one of the greatest and most influential heavy metal albums of all time. Paranoid refined Black Sabbath's signature sound -- crushingly loud, minor-key dirges loosely based on heavy blues-rock -- and applied it to a newly consistent set of songs with utterly memorable riffs, most of which now rank as all-time metal classics. Where the extended, multi-sectioned songs on the debut sometimes felt like aimless jams, their counterparts on Paranoid have been given focus and direction, lending an epic drama to now-standards like "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" (which sports one of the most immediately identifiable riffs in metal history). The subject matter is unrelentingly, obsessively dark, covering both supernatural/sci-fi horrors and the real-life traumas of death, war, nuclear annihilation, mental illness, drug hallucinations, and narcotic abuse. Yet Sabbath makes it totally convincing, thanks to the crawling, muddled bleakness and bad-trip depression evoked so frighteningly well by their music. Even the qualities that made critics deplore the album (and the group) for years increase the overall effect -- the technical simplicity of Ozzy Osbourne's vocals and Tony Iommi's lead guitar vocabulary; the spots when the lyrics sink into melodrama or awkwardness; the lack of subtlety and the infrequent dynamic contrast. Everything adds up to more than the sum of its parts, as though the anxieties behind the music simply demanded that the band achieve catharsis by steamrolling everything in its path, including its own limitations. Monolithic and primally powerful, Paranoid defined the sound and style of heavy metal more than any other record in rock history.
Steve Huey, Rovi
Recorded in late summer 1979 and released by the end of the year, Bomber quickly followed up Overkill, Motörhead's landmark breakthrough album from earlier in the year. Bomber bears a lot in common with its fan-favorite predecessor. For starters, it features the classic Motörhead lineup: Lemmy (bass and vocals), "Fast" Eddie Clarke (guitar), and "Philthy Animal" Taylor (drums). Also like Overkill, Bomber features the production grace of Jimmy Miller, the man responsible for the Rolling Stones' late-'60s/early-'70s albums, including such masterpieces as Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. And the music here on Bomber explodes on song after song, thanks to the crazed performances of the aforementioned bandmembers as well as the well-overdriven, ear-rattling production perfection of Miller. Actually, there's only one marked difference between Overkill and Bomber that's worth noting: the songs. There are a couple killers here, namely "Dead Men Tell No Tales," "Stone Dead Forever," and "Bomber," but overall, the songs of Bomber aren't as strong as those of Overkill were. Granted, this is somewhat of a moot point to raise, as Bomber is still a top-shelf Motörhead album, one of their all-time best, without question. But it does fall just a notch or two below Overkill and Ace of Spades, the latter of which would follow a year later and catapult the band to further acclaim. Bomber kicks ass, in any event, and its best moments are as superlative as any Motörhead would ever record. The band was really on fire during this point in time and could seemingly do no wrong. [The various single-disc reissues of Bomber append a B-side ("Over the Top") and four live recordings that had originally comprised the 1980 Golden Years EP.]
Jason Birchmeier, Rovi
Kiss' 1974 self-titled debut is one of hard rock's all-time classic studio recordings. Kiss is chock full of their best and most renowned compositions, containing elements of Rolling Stones/New York Dolls party-hearty rock & roll, Beatles tunefulness, and Sabbath/Zep heavy metal, and wisely recorded primal and raw by producers Richie Wise and Kenny Kerner (of Gladys Knight fame). Main songwriters Stanley and Simmons each had a knack for coming up with killer melodies and riffs, as evidenced by "Nothin' to Lose" and "Deuce" (by Simmons), "Firehouse" and "Black Diamond" (by Stanley), as well as "Strutter" and "100,000 Years" (collaborations by the two). Also included is the Ace Frehley alcohol anthem "Cold Gin," "Let Me Know" (a song that Stanley played for Simmons upon their very first meeting, then titled "Sunday Driver"), and one of Kiss' few instrumentals: the groovy "Love Theme from Kiss" (penned by the entire band). The only weak track is a tacky cover of the 1959 Bobby Rydell hit "Kissin' Time," which was added to subsequent pressings of the album to tie in with a "Kissing Contest" promotion the band was involved in at the time. Along with 1976's Destroyer, Kiss' self-titled debut is their finest studio album, and has only improved over the years.
For their seventh studio album, Brit grindcore crew Godflesh returned to the relative simplicity of a guitar/bass/human drummer lineup. Justin Broadrick even sings on a number of songs without the aid of distortion. This isn't to imply that they've lightened up or lost their brutal, pessimistic outlook. The angst and the cold, mechanical feel are still present and correct, but the band sound better than ever. The incredible "Anthem" sees Broadrick in an emotive mood, something he's not been known for on earlier releases, and it works surprisingly well. Opener "Defeated" proudly displays their Sabbath roots, deep and slow, with an atmosphere of menace, while "Paralyzed" out-riffs anything Korn can come up with. As usual, most of the songs come in at over five minutes, with closer "Jesus" stretching out to nearly 13 minutes. If you can't stand Godflesh and their minimalist approach, then Hymns is unlikely to change your mind, but, for the already converted, this is the best album the band have released in recent years.
Jim Harper, Rovi
Heavy rock supergroup Down climb back to the top of the sludge-metal heap with Down III, the band's first outing since 2001's Down II. While the devastation of Hurricane Katrina delayed the completion of the album (and temporarily displaced the New Orleans-based band), Down regrouped, led in no small part by the dogged determination of former Pantera and current Down vocalist Phil Anselmo. Down III is rife with Black Sabbath-inspired guitar work, dense lyrics, and bluesy slow-bashing grooves., Rovi
13 is the 19th studio album from heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, arriving nearly 20 years after 1995's Forbidden. Produced by Rick Rubin (Slayer, Metallica) and featuring the vocals of Ozzy Osbourne for the first time on a Black Sabbath studio album since 1978's Never Say Die!, 13 is a blistering return that includes the single "God Is Dead?"
Daniel Clancy, Rovi
Though their (second) self-titled album found Killswitch Engage reintroducing themselves as a more accessible, albeit still plenty frenzied, metalcore band, their sixth album, Disarm the Descent, feels as though they're reintroducing themselves not to the audience, but to one another. Returning to the band after the departure of Howard Jones in 2012, original vocalist Jesse Leach finds himself once again picking up vocals duties after parting ways with the group in 2002. Though Leach was a part of the band during their formative years, over a decade has passed since then, and while the performances by all parties involved here are certainly solid ones, they don't quite capture the raw power of their earlier work. In the time since Leach left the fold, Killswitch Engage have matured into a tighter, more refined band than they were for Alive or Just Breathing, and while Leach has certainly grown as a singer in the intervening years, the album doesn't quite recapture that sense of catharsis the band possessed back then. This isn't to say that the album is bad -- in fact, it's quite solidly constructed, an almost watertight specimen of technical acumen -- but that fans expecting this album to be a full-on time machine back to 2002 might be a bit disappointed. What the album might lack in muscle, however, it makes up for in speed, often feeling like a throwback to the days of thrash's blistering technicality, but where past album rampaged, this one merely races. At the end of the day, defining the exact shade of Disarm the Descent's melodic aggression might be splitting hairs, the most important thing for Killswitch fans is that while the band might be adjusting after a shake-up like losing a singer, they've still managed to create another riff-fest that, while not a throwback to their older sound, has them continuing down their current path without much trouble.
Gregory Heaney, Rovi
Not since the release of Tiamat's groundbreaking masterpiece Wildhoney in 1994 had the extreme metal scene witnessed such an overwhelming show of fan enthusiasm and uniform critical praise as that bestowed upon Blackwater Park, the astounding fifth effort from Swedish metal titans Opeth. A work of breathtaking creative breadth, Blackwater Park (named after an obscure German progressive rock outfit from the 1970s) keeps with Opeth's tradition by transcending the limits of death/black metal and repeatedly shattering the foundations of conventional songwriting, to boot. Rarely does a band manage to break new ground without losing touch with its roots, but Opeth has made a career of it -- perhaps never as effortlessly as on this occasion. But the biggest difference between Blackwater Park and previous offerings lies not in the remarkably high songwriting standards achieved by main man Mikael Åkerfeldt (that's a given with him), but in the first-time involvement of Porcupine Tree leader Steve Wilson, whose contributions as producer lend an unprecedented fluidity to Opeth's restlessly inventive arrangements. Like all Opeth LPs, Blackwater Park is divided not so much into songs as "movements," as the band likes to call them. Tracks start and finish in seemingly arbitrary fashion, usually traversing ample musical terrain, including acoustic guitar and solo piano passages, ambient soundscapes, stoner rock grooves, and Eastern-tinged melodies -- any of which are subject to savage punctuations of death metal fury at any given moment. Likewise, Åkerfeldt's vocals run the gamut from bowel-churning grunts to melodies of chilling beauty -- depending on each movement section's mood. With all this in mind, singling out specific highlights is pretty much a futile exercise; but for the benefit of first-time listeners, why not start out with the colossal, Arabian-flavored riffs of "Bleak," the memorable chorus of "The Drapery Falls," the surprisingly gentle intro of "Dirge for November," and, finally, the all-encompassing title track. Then, with patience (Opeth's music is everything but immediate), the rest of Blackwater Park's grand scheme will be revealed. As for more experienced Opeth disciples, few will disagree with the fact that, even compared to lofty prior achievements, Blackwater Park is surely the band's coming-of-age album, and therefore, an ideal introduction to its remarkable body of work.
Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi
On their previous album, Geneva, Russian Circles had a quiet conversation on the nature of patience in music with a collection of songs that quietly and calmly built themselves up with layers of melody. On Empros, however, the band has escalated from conversation to argument, combining the precision of their last album with the metal fury of some of their earlier work. The album opener, “309,” gets to work almost immediately, unleashing a suffocating wall of snarling guitars that seems to embody the stark, unforgiving cold of the winters in their native Chicago before eventually dissolving into the uplifting second track, “Mlàdek.” This kind of musical drift continues throughout the album, with each song giving way to the next, allowing the disc to unfold in movements rather than tracks. Perhaps to match the more aggressive musical aesthetic of Empros, Russian Circles have also adopted a more aggressive production style, taking on a rawer and more open sound that allows the mid-range of the guitars to scrape and growl their way out of the speakers, and gives the drums an overdriven openness that makes every song sound like it’s happening in some kind of abandoned factory. As an album, Empros shows Russian Circles bringing together everything they’ve done before into one complete package, compiling the lessons of albums past into one singular vision, and bringing it all together for a new vision of their future.
Gregory Heaney, Rovi
Displaying much more emotional range than many of its contemporaries, Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse combines black metal's noisy fury with synth arrangements and dark, haunting medieval chords and melodies, thus evoking moods of sorrow and loneliness. Awash in pagan imagery, the album was recorded in the Memorial Hall of Edvard Grieg for additional atmosphere, indicative of the record's ambition and of the band's willingness to experiment and push the limits of the death metal genre. In fact, In the Nightside Eclipse, although not quite as complex or accessible as its follow-up, is arguably the definitive Norwegian black metal album. [This version of the album includes bonus material.]