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