ARTIST: TOBY KEITH
ALBUM: AMERICAN RIDE
There's a little less bluster and bravado on Toby Keith's latest album, American Ride, and it's a welcome turn. Keith has always understood how to connect with his loyal fans, and he may have sensed their need for a break from the in-your-face feel of his most recent albums. The track Are You Feelin' Me is a rare show of vulnerability from the Oklahoma native, while Woke Up on My Own finds the singer facing his own limitations. Dave Koz's saxophone is a perfect accompaniment to the tender and touching Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song), a tribute to former NBA star jazz musician Wayman Tisdale, who died in May. The fiddle- and steel guitar-laden You Can't Read My Mind and the I'm-a-lug-but-you-love-me-anyway Tender As I Wanna Be are destined to be dance-floor favorites. The first single/title track, the only song on the set that Keith didn't have a hand in writing, is a look at America and all its foibles. Meanwhile, the rocking and rousing Loaded celebrates the workingman's night on the town.
ARTIST: JOSHUA BELL
ALBUM: AT HOME WITH FRIENDS (Sony Classical)
The Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell returns with At Home With Friends, a star-studded album of marquee-level duets with guest artists like Sting, Josh Groban and Chris Botti. If the term classical crossover sends you running for cover, fear not: This is one duets album that packs a sonic -- and celebrity -- punch. The new album finds Bell's virtuosic violin amid a wide array of musical genres: a jazz-inspired reading of George Gershwin's I Loves You Porgy (alongside trumpeter Botti), the bluegrass-drenched Look Away (featuring Nickel Creek's mandolin master Chris Thile) and even a foray into Argentine tango on Astor Piazzolla's Oblivion. Other standout sparring partners include pianist Dave Grusin (on Tom Jobim's Chovendo Na Roseira) and perennial favorite Sting on Come Again, from his classical album Songs From the Labyrinth. Much more than just a publicity vehicle, At Home With Friends is an inspired, moving musical affair.
ARTIST: GHOSTFACE KILLAH
ALBUM: GHOSTDINI: THE WIZARD OF POETRY IN EMERALD CITY (Island Records)
In the past decade, Ghostface Killah has moved away from the esoteric beats of his Wu-Tang Clan cuts to explore buttery soul rhythms. On his new album, Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, the rapper dives head-first into R&B, and the results are more mixed than his hip-hop output but nonetheless intriguing. On the first single, Baby, Ghostface spits come-ons between a soaring chorus by Raheem DeVaughn, while Guest House showcases a moody tale of betrayal with Fabolous popping up as the other man. As always, Ghostface's penchant for storytelling is the main attraction, with each verse displaying impeccable detail and confidence that commands attention. While the album's softer instrumentation and thematic preoccupation with romance may initially frustrate some diehard rap fans, its silky hooks begin to sink in with repeated listens. The Wizard of Poetry represents a curious departure in Ghostface's discography, but after his heavy-handed past work, the set is an entertaining breather.
ARTIST: KRIS KRISTOFFERSON
ALBUM: CLOSER TO THE BONE (New West Records)
As the title suggests, Kris Kristofferson's newest album, Closer to the Bone, is an attempt to reach new depths of vulnerability -- a portrait of an old man laid bare, following his 2006 opus, This Old Road (which was his first recording after a 12-year hiatus). Folk music relies heavily on the willingness of the artist to be confessional. Now, considering himself near the end of his life, Kristofferson is exposing himself more than ever before, exploring death and love from this new perspective. On the song From Here to Forever, Kristofferson sings tenderly in his familiar smoky growl, Here's one I wrote for my kids; and on the title track, I'll love you from here to forever. Kristofferson returned to veteran folk molder Don Was as producer and also for his contributions as bass player in the intimate, live-feeling instrumentation. With Closer to the Bone Kristofferson digs deep into his long and troubled past to bring listeners one of his most beautiful moments.
ALBUM: CRASH LOVE (DGC/Interscope Records)
AFI's eighth studio album, Crash Love, remains faithful to the arena-ready pop noir that made the rock band a multiplatinum superstar earlier this decade. Singer Davey Havok once again puts on his best Smiths-esque strut while dancing his way through glammy new wave beats, bouncy rhythm sections and fist-pumping choruses. The track End Transmission is dressed up in '80s charm, bolstered by a punchy bass line and pounding keys, while gang chants and pulsating synths pepper I Am Trying Very Hard to Be Here. Listeners will be hard pressed to find a single screamed vocal; it's as if AFI has finally made the transition from Nightmare Before Christmas-like spook punk to polished Goth-pop. Even though Crash Love isn't terribly progressive in scope and the band's '80s idolatry might one day run its course, the set is another highlight in a discography that's as consistent as it is expansive.
ALBUM: THE RESISTANCE (Warner Bros. Records)
British rock act Muse's fifth album, The Resistance, shows growth from the band's previous releases and proves that it's primed for a global musical takeover. The album opener, Uprising, carries a pulsating bass-and-drum groove, and singer/guitarist Matthew Bellamy provides call-to-arms lyrics (Rise up and take the power back/ It's time that/The fat cats had a heart attack). United States of Eurasia opens with a docile verse but quickly progresses with a falsetto vocal and accompanying guitar riff that break open a larger-than-life chorus and a Middle Eastern-sounding bridge reminiscent of Queen. The three-part rock symphony Exogenesis closes the album, combining elements of piano and the band's dramatic flair. The evolution of Muse is likely far from over, and The Resistance teases what the band still has up its sleeve.
ARTIST: SELENA GOMEZ & THE SCENE
ALBUM: KISS & TELL (Hollywood Records)
Tell me, tell me, tell me something I don't know, Selena Gomez sings on the final cut on her debut album, Kiss & Tell. Considering how closely the new set follows similarly situated tween-pop efforts by Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, Gomez's fans might share the sentiment: It's not always easy to tell what distinguishes the work of this Wizards of Waverly Place TV star from that of her fellow Disney-factory females. That doesn't mean Kiss & Tell doesn't deliver its required payload of electro-rock delights. The song Naturally has a juicy and instantly memorable vocal hook, while the pop-punk title track expertly channels the good-natured sass of the Go-Go's (no surprise, given drummer Gina Schock's co-writing credit). But if Gomez wants to outlast her current context, her music could use more of her in it.