NEW YORK (Billboard) - Rascal Flatts’ third single from the album “Unstoppable” tackles what might be the group’s darkest subject yet: the loss of a friend to suicide. A delicate piano melody anchors the song’s beginning and end, providing the sole support for singer Gary LeVox’s voice. In between, its instrumentation widens to include somber strings, a steadfast drumbeat and finally, a piercing electric guitar during the emotional climax. LeVox matches the mood with a vocal delivery that fluctuates between fragile and commanding. Co-songwriters Robert Mathes and Allen Shamblin weave an affecting story, using music as a metaphor for life. “Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight,” LeVox sings. “They were wrong, they lied/And now you’re gone and we cried/‘Cause it’s not like you to walk away in the middle of a song.”
SINGLE: MAKE ME (A&M/UMe)
Janet Jackson gave her late brother, Michael, two gifts in September. First, the singer paid tribute by performing their “Scream” duet at the MTV Video Music Awards; then she premiered the “Off the Wall”-inspired dance track “Make Me,” now a single on her “Number Ones” album due November 17. Her most appealing and high-energy track since the 2001 “All for You,” the song thumps aggressively, with a funky guitar lick driving the rhythm. Its nonstop vamp recalls “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” as Jackson puts a new twist on that classic disco number’s chorus. “Don’t stop it baby, don’t stop til you get it up ... Ain’t nobody else like you/Only you got the moves you do.” “Make Me” isn’t just Jackson’s best dance song in years -- it’s a hit that would make her brother proud.
SINGLE: SPOTLIGHT (So Icey/Asylum/Warner Bros. Records)
You know you’re approaching hip-hop greatness when your single’s hook marks the return of a superstar. “It feels so good to be back,” Usher bellows at the top of Gucci Mane’s “Spotlight,” concerning a girl the Atlanta rapper wants to bed. As usual, Mane keeps his verses nimble and lighthearted. The rapper also shouts out recent collaborators Mariah Carey and Trina, comparing his love interest to the singers over a Polow Da Don-produced beat. “The spotlight ain’t nothing without you, girl,” Usher echoes in the song’s infectious chorus, which is soused with extended piano chords, minimal drums and paced hand claps. If there was any doubt that Mane is one of the biggest names in hip-hop this year, consider “Spotlight” a friendly reminder.