NEW YORK (Billboard) - Despite the tabloid drama surrounding “My December,” what counts here is, Are there hits? The vinegar-and-pissed-off “Never Again,” while a top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit on download sales, got a hasty brush-off from top 40. The reflective but equally fretful “Sober” is just hitting radio, with the jury out. On the whole, “My December” is melodically, instrumentally and lyrically combative — a far cry from America’s embraceable sweetheart. The uptempo “One Minute” is among the only playful cuts, with its rapid-fire give-and-take verses, while “Be Still” and “Maybe” offer acoustic relief from the onslaught more than halfway through the set. “My December” is hardly a scorecard of top 40 hits, but it does demonstrate an artist eager to spread wings and search for her own voice against what Clarkson asserts was a heavy corporate hand in previous efforts.
ALBUM: MS. KELLY (Columbia Records/Sony Urban)
Former Destiny’s Child songstress Kelly Rowland may never upstage her superstar groupmate Beyonce, but she certainly has the vocal chops and charm to stand on her own stiletto-clad feet. Consider the aptly titled “Ms. Kelly” her proper mission statement. Compared with her gospel-fueled 2002 solo debut, “Simply Deep,” Rowland appears confident and dominant on foot-stompers like “Come Back” and the Eve-assisted single “Like This.” These whiplash-inducing tunes fit like jigsaw pieces beside relationship-driven ballads (“Better Without You”) and midtempo cuts (“Ghetto” featuring Snoop Dogg) that showcase her come-hither pipes. In true Destiny’s Child fashion, Rowland teeters between coy and naughty, often in the same whispery breath. Though still short of career-defining, “Ms. Kelly” finds its author opening up more while welcoming the possibility that destiny may just find another star.
ALBUM: T.I. VS. T.I.P. (Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records)
Taking a page from the Ludacris playbook, T.I. devotes “T.I. vs. T.I.P.” to a battle between two sides of his personality and the theme of man versus self. The MC certainly gets an A for creative effort, thanks to tracks like the Wyclef Jean-produced “You Know What It Is” (“Sell another couple million and take it back to the A,” T.I. raps), the smooth “Don’t You Wanna Be High” and “Watch What You Say to Me” featuring the ubiquitous Jay-Z. But the project doesn’t offer as many gems as “King,” which pushed T.I. to new commercial heights. First single “Big Things Poppin”‘ doesn’t reach the level of the last album’s hit “What You Know,” and cuts produced by the usually reliable Runners (“We Do This”) and Eminem (“Touchdown”) are surprisingly flat. It remains to be seen if fans will follow T.I. down this conceptual road or whether they’ll just want to hear hits.
ALBUM: LIBERTAD (RCA Records)
Admit it; you wondered if Velvet Revolver would live to see a second album. Skepticism is an occupational hazard for such supergroups, especially by those whose frontmen have reputations staked in self-destruction. But “Libertad” is one of those sophomore albums that builds on the strengths of the first and offers enough fresh stuff to establish a new standard for the band. The quintet’s stock in trade remains such muscular, big-chorus riff-rockers as “Get Out the Door,” “Just Sixteen,” the Stooges-like “Let It Roll” and the single “She Builds Quick Machines,” all vehicles for flash ‘n’ trash from guitarists Slash and David Kushner. There are also detours into soul (“The Last Fight”), garage rock (“American Man”) and Eastern flavors (“She Mine”). A terrible cover of ELO’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is the lone stumble on this thoroughly satisfying second effort.
ALBUM: MINDCRIME AT THE MOORE (Rhino Records)
This live collection captures both chapters of the “Operation: Mindcrime” saga Queensryche concluded in 2006. Actors and props helped tell the story onstage, making the concert more theatrical than “Operation: LIVEcrime,” the 1991 documentation of when the band played “Mindcrime” in its entirety. Seattle’s native sons are sharply on point and rock the house as they mix their welcome home with a goodbye to the double-album production. “Mindcrime II” will always be overshadowed by its big brother, but tunes like “The Hands,” “Hostage” and “All the Promises” prove that the album has its chops. The DVD is the real treat here, from the concert itself to the Seahawks Blue Thunder drum line raiding the stage and whipping militant call-to-arms “Anarchy X” into the coolest marching drill ever. A must for Ryche-and-Rollers.
ALBUM: TRANSLATED FROM LOVE (Rykodisc)
On her first CD in five years, Kelly Willis delivers an alt-country gem. As on her two earlier Rykodisc albums, 1999’s “What I Deserve” and 2002’s “Easy,” Willis ruminates in a heartfelt vein on such tunes as the slow heartbreak waltz “Too Much to Lose” and sasses with whimsy on such rowdy covers as Iggy Pop’s deep-in-the-ditches “Success.” Groomed as the next big thing in country in the early ‘90s, Willis has successfully avoided Nashville expectations by following her gut. She plays the country card superbly on tunes like the sweetly melancholic “Losing You,” colored by Greg Leisz’s banjo and pedal-steel wash, and the rockabilly-tinged “Teddy Boys.” But Willis also puts the twang into pop material, highlighted by the opener “Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore.”
ALBUM: SACRED GROUND (Justin Time Records)
Prolific tenor saxophonist David Murray explores heartrending sociopolitical territory on “Sacred Ground” by musically addressing the “ethnic cleansing” of African-American communities after the Civil War. Murray is a brawny blower who delivers dark-toned musings and high-pitched wails as the storytelling sage whose commentary is riveting and soulful. He’s particularly powerful with his distressed bass clarinet lines on the centerpiece track, “Banished,” an anguished lament with a stormy rhythm section. Bookending the seven-track collection are two vocal numbers, the charged title track and the slow-walking blues “Prophet of Doom,” with Cassandra Wilson giving dark-roast voice to writer Ishmael Reed’s poignant poetry. Pianist Lafayette Gilchrist makes an impressive debut in the quartet (replacing the late John Hicks) with his blues-steeped syncopated rhythms and ripe lyricism, especially on the upbeat “Transitions.”