R. Kelly, Write Me Back, RCA Records
Dear R. Kelly, You’ve gone and done it again. I don’t know what’s going on with two back-to-back, rather wholesome and anachronistic albums, but your eleventh ``Write Me Back’’ feels like a breath of fresh air on the contemporary urban scene. You may be trying to subvert expectations of your chosen genre, you may be showing off your voice, maybe you are preaching a newfound understanding of relationships, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve single-handedly produced and written an album with a voice.
Mixing 1970s funk and soul, 1950s beats, church organ sprinkles and 1990s nostalgia R&B was an excellent idea. Those sounds, coupled with romantic lyrics, may sound like a cheesefest, but that’s what makes the dish so delicious.
You start off with vivacious ode Love Is and meander through retro beats and ballads with a purposeful gait. Your only pit stops on the love highway are on the party dance floor with the engaging swing song All Rounds On Me, and the lively Party Jumpin. Believe That It’s So is the one tune on the record that wanders from the realm of personal into the club. This highly enjoyable dance romp is a testament to your enduring presence on the music scene. You know I’m a Fool For You; You’ve got the Green Light to move on to your next album in the knowledge you’ve nailed this one.
CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: Feeling Single puts an imaginary cane, a fedora and tux on you, some smooth moves and pushes you right in that spotlight.
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do,Epic Records
After making a name for herself at 19 with her acclaimed debut Tidal in 1996, Fiona Apple slowed down and almost ground down to a halt. Now 34, she releases her fourth album after a seven-year break, and the title’s a mouthful: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. But the dense name is merely indicative of the richness of material on the album and the now 34-year-old’s fearlessness in taking her time to do the exact music she wants.
Stripped down to ten tracks and using instruments scarcely, The Idler Wheel presents the listener with a deceptive facade of frugality, when in fact, like with all of Apple’s work, it blooms into a rich tapestry of emotional stories. The singer pours herself vulnerable and raw into the music, particularly on tracks like Every Single Night, Periphery and Anything We Want. Apple’s remarkable voice exudes a mix of confidence and hurt, modulating itself perfectly to the atmosphere of each song.
Apart from intuitive use of non-instrumental sounds such as a typewriter (Regret), children’s voices on a playground (Werewolf) and birds flapping their wings (Daredevil), Apple brings to the table her impeccable lyric-writing skills and instinct for the most wonderful turn of phrase. After all, who else would put in the same song words like “orotund, “reticulate” and “valedictories” and get away with it? At the end of the album, you feel like you’ve been to wonderland.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: Regret lodges itself in your brain like an obsessive letter to an ex-lover.
Justin Bieber, Believe, Island Def Jam
Because Justin Bieber is Justin Bieber -- a Canadian teen singer heartthrob -- it’s hard to take his music seriously. Everything about him screams Tiger Beat, from the endless screeching girls to his relationship with fellow teen sensation Selena Gomez.
And then there’s the song that has defined him most — Baby, perhaps the most saccharine, bubble-gum song recorded in quite some time.
It’s not surprising that few have taken Bieber the artist seriously. But his new CD will help change that.
Believe, his third full-length album, is a 13-track set that shows that Bieber, now 18, is growing as a musician, and the result is enjoyable.
The album’s first single, Boyfriend, is a great pop song that sounds like Justin Timberlake’s falsetto mashed up with the Ying Yang Twins’ The Whisper Song. It’s Bieber’s biggest hit to date.
The rest of the album also has future hits: All Around the World (with Ludacris) is upbeat, as is the futuristic, Big Sean-assisted As Long As You Love Me, which sounds like it could have been produced by Skrillex and David Guetta.
Bieber co-wrote all but one song on the album, working with producers like The Messengers, Rodney Jerkins, Hit-Boy, Diplo, Max Martin, Bei Maejor and others.
His best collaboration is with Drake on Right Here, a 1990s sounding-R&B jam that proves the singer is best on smoother tunes, not Euro-flavored ones. Catching Feelings, a soft, pop groove co-written by Babyface, is arguably the best track, showcasing Bieber’s versatility and hopefully the future artistic heft to come from the singer. It also highlights Bieber’s voice, which is good and improving, though recent live performances of Boyfriend haven’t been that strong.
Believe does have some missteps: Thought of You is weak and the Nicki Minaj-featured Beauty and a Beat is a wasted collaboration.
While Bieber channels Timberlake at times, he also has moments inspired by his idol, Michael Jackson. Bieber samples Jackson’s We Got a Good Thing Going for the nicely done, R&B-tinged Die In Your Arms, and there’s also a bonus track Maria, a song about Mariah Yeater, the woman who falsely claimed Bieber fathered her child. The song recalls Billie Jean, and it’s clever and amusing.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: Bonus track Out of Town Girl is another track with Timberlake flavor.
Linkin Park, Living Things, Warner Bros. Records
Living Things, the group’s fifth album, is pretty top-notch from its opening track, Lost In the Echo — which features Chester Bennington’s signature screech — to its closing numbers, the Skrillex-sounding and grungy instrumental Tinfoil, which transitions into the guitar-heavy Powerless. The album is dominated by anger and, at moments, disappointment and rage: Lies Greed Misery and Victimized are self-explanatory, and on In My Remains, Bennington sings: “Falling in the cracks of every broken heart, digging through the wreckage of your disregard.” Living Things comes 12 years after the six-member band released its brilliant debut, Hybrid Theory. The new album was produced by Mike Shinoda and Rick Rubin, and it’s reminiscent of the rap-rock sound of the group’s first two discs. The guys took a departure from that on Minutes to Midnight and 2010’s A Thousand Suns -- also produced by Rubin — which had psychedelic moments and featured excerpts from political speeches.
But Linkin Park never disappoints, and Living Things is living proof.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: It’s simple, but Bennington’s repetitive “Ohhh” on Roads Untraveled is oh-so-good.