ARTIST: KYLIE MINOGUE
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Even after a four-year absence and a courageous battle against cancer, Kylie Minogue's appetite for pop perfection remains undimmed. Indeed, her 10th studio album (due next year in the United States) is stuffed with pointers as to why she's one of the few pure pop artists to sustain a career into a third decade without ever pulling a Britney. The hip producers (Calvin Harris, Bloodshy & Avant) and heavy-hitting songwriters (Guy Chambers, Cathy Dennis) are all present and correct, but they never overshadow Minogue's perky/saucy pop/dance formula. You'll search in vain for insight into her recent personal traumas, but there's still plenty of heart and soul and, in the shape of "Sensitized," "In My Arms," "The One" and lead single "Two Hearts," her best batch of tunes in a while. A truly welcome return.
ALBUM: D-SIDES (Virgin Records)
Gorillaz' second rarities compilation covers "phase two" of the cartoon-avatar band's career, centering on its second album, 2005's "Demon Days." It's not all killer, but some impressive tracks lurk within. Opener "68 State" is a sexy, fractured instrumental, propelled by a haunting bassline. "People" is also a great listen; the song is a demo version of "Demon Days" single "DARE," but here it has a completely different lyric and melody, sung by bandleader Damon Albarn (aka 2D) instead of eventual guest vocalist Shaun Ryder. "Hong Kong," originally recorded for a Warchild benefit album, is a different animal: Albarn is at his Blurriest, his voice melancholy yet hopeful as he muses over a river of gently plucked strings. A bonus disc features a host of remixes, including three versions each of "DARE" and "Kids With Guns."
ARTIST: RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS
ALBUM: FOLLOW THE LIGHTS (Lost Highway Records)
Ryan Adams used to attribute his robust output to the fuel of drugs and alcohol, so it's nice to see that he can still crank out top-notch material in rapid succession even when sober. This seven-song EP comes three months on the heels of the full-length "Easy Tiger," blending some country-leaning new songs with alternate versions of old tunes and (don't laugh) a cover of Alice in Chains' "Down in a Hole." Best of the new bunch is the bittersweet, pedal steel-flecked title cut, while banjo and ace harmonies enrich "My Love for You Is Real." Later, "Is This It," previously a shiny, new wave homage on Adams' underrated "Rock N Roll" album, is transformed into a sparse but still urgent ode to burgeoning love. At times, the oh-so-serious vibe makes one long for the old reckless Ryan, but with songs this compelling, it'd be a crime not to listen.
ALBUM: THE BOATLIFT (TVT Records)
Pitbull's signature combination of clever, in-your-face Spanglish lyrics and frenetic dance beats is at its best on this album, where he plays to his less excessively crude sensibilities. The talented Miami MC shows his range here, deftly transitioning from uptempo dance to R&B to everything in between. There are some party-perfect club tracks, particularly "The Anthem," a fun hip-shaker featuring Lil Jon, and "Midnight," featuring Casely on the hook. "Fuego" has pleasing retro touches that recall "Planet Rock." Of the slower songs, the best is the refreshingly serious "My Life" If you don't mind the 2 Live Crew-ish blue streak on this set, turn it up.
ALBUM: ALL THAT IS WITHIN ME (INO Records)
This Texas-based group is once again singing primarily to the choir on "All That Is Within Me," which finds frontman Bart Millard and his compadres serving up strong songs geared more toward the church. A prime example is "Time Has Come," a buoyant number that celebrates being children of God. The first single, "God With Us," is already saturating Christian radio, while "You Reign" is a classic-sounding worship anthem. Amid the sea of overtly spiritual songs, the Beatles-esque "Goodbye Ordinary" has solid crossover potential and could land the band back on the pop charts. No matter what tag the industry puts on these guys, the bottom line is that they continually make great music with broad-based appeal.
ALBUM: SUPERSTAR (Tuff Gong/Ghetto Youths/ Universal)
On his delightfully lightweight major-label debut, this 14-year-old Jamaican native makes no attempt to pass himself off as an adult. The key track on "Superstar" is an update of "Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto?)" on which Javaughn's adolescent voice is pitched up even higher, to resemble that of a baby. But if "Superstar" plays up the singer's youth, the album's sound is not one of inexperience. Thanks to instrumental contributions by reggae vets including Sly & Robbie as well as several members of the extended Marley clan, Javaughn's pop-wise confections (many written by his father, John Bond) throb with a vintage vibe that should satisfy any old-schoolers.
ALBUM: BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE (Epic Records)
Alternative metal crew Mudvayne let fans choose the track listing and album art for this pseudo-greatest-hits set, and the masses have spoken with a coherent voice. It was no shock that "Dig" made the cut -- a raw, thudding take of the song was captured from 2003's Summer Sanitarium tour. The smaller surprise is that fans crave earlier incarnations of Mudvayne staples like "Death Blooms" and "Not Falling," heard here on eight well-polished demos. Core followers also prefer tunes packed with hooks. It explains why the band's innovative cover of the Police's "King of Pain" got the nod.
ARTIST: AMY WINEHOUSE
ALBUM: FRANK (Universal Republic)
Although U.K. fans likely discovered Amy Winehouse through her stellar 2003 debut, "Frank," the album flew under the American pop radar. Now, just in time to capitalize on the success of the Brit's breakthrough, "Back to Black," the debut is appearing stateside for the first time. While the latter disc found Winehouse cackling over lush vintage soul backdrops, "Frank" uses sparse instrumentation to achieve a subtler, jazzier effect. Here, her vocals -- less developed and wobblier than now, yet still astounding -- and tell-it-like-it-is lyrics take center stage. Better late than never.