ARTIST: BARBRA STREISAND
ALBUM: LOVE IS THE ANSWER
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Love may be the answer on Barbra Streisand's first studio set since 2005, but the question is: How slow can you go? Paired with Diana Krall as producer (and pianist) and Johnny Mandel as arranger, Streisand gives her trademark romantic-ballad treatment to 13 well-known standards, including Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen's If You Go Away and Make Someone Happy, from the musical Do Re Mi. Krall -- producing another artist's album for the first time -- supplies traces of the jazz-club detail that Streisand outgrew decades ago, as heard when the singer quotes the song How Insensitive during a Brazilian-inflected rendition of Gentle Rain. The deluxe version of the album comes with a second disc of alternate takes featuring Streisand accompanied only by Krall's quartet, a back-to-basics experiment that may have inspired the singer's September 26 appearance at New York's Village Vanguard. Still, there's no doubting whose show this is -- only Streisand could turn Here's to Life into such a soft-focus weeper.
ARTIST: MONSTERS OF FOLK
ALBUM: MONSTERS OF FOLK (Shangri-La Records)
The sessions for Monsters of Folk's self-titled debut had the indie collective's four songwriters -- Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis -- bringing ready-to-record songs to the proceedings. Introduced by James' falsetto, the thrift-store soul of the sublime album opener, Dear God, is obviously the brainchild of the My Morning Jacket singer, while the grimly gorgeous track Temazcal is clearly from Bright Eyes leader Oberst, and so on. Those who saw the foursome tour together under their own names in 2004 (when they sometimes performed on one another's songs) shouldn't be surprised by the seamlessness of the set. At times, it's difficult to differentiate who is singing, thanks to masterful producing by Bright Eyes' Mogis. When viewed less as a hipster supergroup and more as an old-fashioned song swap, Monsters of Folk live up to their hype and then some.
ARTIST: MARIAH CAREY
ALBUM: MEMOIRS OF AN IMPERFECT ANGEL (Island Records)
Mariah Carey is not only revisiting her past appearance-wise (lately she has been wearing her hair in loose curls, as during the early days of her career), but she's also taking her sound back to her R&B roots. On Carey's latest album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (with the exception of the first single, Obsessed, and the hood-girl-sounding Up Out My Face, among a few others), the singer leaves behind the teeny-bop themes and hip-hop-heavy melodies of 2008's E=MC2. She opts for big ballads and R&B tunes about love and heartbreak, which makes the new set more cohesive and age-appropriate. Carey croons in her staple high-pitched voice over piano and finger snaps on Angels Cry, while singing about true love alongside a thumping bass on Inseparable. The Impossible takes its cue from early-'90s group Jodeci's Forever My Lady. Carey's throwback vibe on Memoirs is refreshing and much welcomed.
ARTIST: MIRANDA LAMBERT
ALBUM: REVOLUTION (Sony Music)
Miranda Lambert has grown up. The angry young woman who famously sang about setting kerosene fires and waiting with a loaded gun for her abusive beau has found love with new boyfriend Blake Shelton, and it's reflected on the diverse Revolution. The song Makin' Plans speaks to putting down roots, while Love Song (co-written with Shelton and Lady Antebellum members Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood) is just what the title suggests. The nostalgic The House That Built Me finds the singer revisiting her childhood home. But Lambert isn't all ruffles and lace. On Fred Eaglesmith's Time to Get a Gun, she prepares to take full advantage of her right to bear arms, and Maintain the Pain is unapologetically more Clash than Cash. Among the highlights on the new set are Lambert's rocking twist on John Prine's That's the Way the World Goes 'Round and the retro-sounding Me and Your Cigarettes.
ARTIST: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
ALBUM: HERE COMES SCIENCE (Disney Sound)
Plenty has been said about how well They Might Be Giants' playful, absurdist rock translates to kids' music -- and the band's fourth offspring-focused effort is no exception. What the CD/DVD Here Comes Science offers -- compared with the act's previous alphabet- and numbers-focused educational albums -- is more sophisticated content aimed at older children. Things like the scientific method and photosynthesis are subject to TMBG founders John Linnell and John Flansburgh's famous imaginations and melodic quirk. There's also a pro-evolution bent to the set, with the topic popping up on two tracks, but even this has broader nuance -- the synth-pop song My Brother the Ape is about an interspecies family reunion where the protagonist is initially uncomfortable about the differences among his kin but learns to love their idiosyncrasies. Songwriting and vocal contributions from bassist Danny Wienkauf, drummer Marty Beller and singer Robin Goldwasser add to the stylistic variety.
ARTIST: SEAN KINGSTON
ALBUM: TOMORROW (Epic Records)
Sean Kingston, the refreshing teenage voice behind summer 2007's ubiquitous charmer Beautiful Girls, is back with his second album, Tomorrow, that again draws from the pop/rap/reggae/doo-wop vein of his self-titled debut. Kingston does widen his scope a bit, as evidenced by the percolating synth/dance vibe of the set's first single and top five hit, Fire Burning. He also pairs with pop-punk group Good Charlotte on the melodic Should Let U Go. Kingston pays homage to the fairer sex on several tracks, including the notable Magical and Wrap U Around Me. But it's his reflective turn on the personal Face Drop -- about not judging a book by its cover -- that truly hits home.
ARTIST: NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND
ALBUM: SPEED OF LIFE (Sugar Hill Records)
It's hard to believe that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been around for five decades. Formed as a California folk rock group, NGDB has endured because of an innate sense of what its music is supposed to sound like, no matter who plays in the band. For that reason alone, its newest album, Speed of Life, fits like a well-worn shoe. There's a simplicity to the music that's refreshing in today's overproduced, oversampled world -- and in true George Massenburg fashion, the production is warm and inviting. The Western-feeling The Resurrection is a classic workingman NGDB cut, while the track Jimmy Martin is a fitting tribute to the King of Bluegrass. Amazing Love has hit written all over it. Unfortunately, it's been years since NGDB was on radio's radar. Ah, for a simpler time.
ALBUM: BRAND NEW EYES (Fueled by Ramen)
Paramore has flirted with rock stardom in the past few years, thanks to hits like Misery Business, That's What You Get and Decode. But the band's new album, Brand New Eyes, marks its full-fledged introduction to rock's elite class. Past efforts have fallen short of fulfilling Paramore's potential, but the band has redefined its sound -- a blend of fast-paced rock and upbeat picture-perfect pop, with both styles buoyed by monster sing-along choruses. The best parts of Brand New Eyes come when the guitars and lyrical themes are heavy. But thankfully, very little here carries the same Hot Topic mentality that crept into Decode, Paramore's contribution to the Twilight soundtrack. Although the new set may lack the wide-eyed naivete that made the group's past efforts so endearing, the newfound maturity makes for a compelling set.
ARTIST: BIG STAR
ALBUM: KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY (boxed set) (Rhino Records)
Big Star may not have achieved the level of success that many had predicted for the '70s Memphis band, but the group's meaty guitar hooks and Beatles-esque harmonies helped launch the power-pop subgenre and inspired acts like Cheap Trick, R.E.M., the Replacements and Fountains of Wayne, among many others. Spanning the years 1968-75, this exquisitely designed four-disc boxed set gathers a treasure trove of rare gems, including material by pre-Big Star groups Rock City and Icewater, choice solo cuts from Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, and a variety of demos and outtakes from Big Star's trilogy of '70s titles, rounded out by 1974's Radio City and 1978's Third/Sister Lovers. The set's fourth disc features a January 1973 hometown performance opening for soul giants Archie Bell & the Drells.