Beyonce, “I am ... Sasha Fierce”Beyonce devoted half of the tracks on this double-disc set to her feisty alter ego Sasha Fierce (think “Single Ladies”). But, it’s the classic, more timeless R&B songs on the “I Am” portion of the album that seem like a much-welcomed stretch for the singer. Lead single “If I Were a Boy” is the first taste of Beyonce’s newfound love for powerful ballads, as she croons about reversing gender roles. On “Halo” she sings in a lower register than usual over big drums and an epic piano pattern and belts emotively (“I don’t want a broken heart/And I don’t want to play the broken-hearted girl”) on the Babyface-penned “Broken-Hearted Girl.” Songs like “Video Phone,” with its repetitive, vibrating beat, and the thumping “Diva,” a collaboration with Sean Garrett, don’t break new ground but more than provide the radio-ready dance tracks for which Beyonce, er, Sasha Fierce, is beloved.
David Cook, “David Cook”“American Idol” season seven champ David Cook already scored a solid hit with his first single, “The Time of My Life,” the kind of sentimental ballad every winner is forced to churn out. Much like his predecessors’ quick-turnaround debuts, Cook’s is fairly generic, but its rock edge is dirtied up with crunching guitars and the artist’s tuneful growl. There are a host of big, anthemic choruses that highlight the power of Cook’s voice, namely the soaring “Declaration” and Chris Cornell/Brian Howes-penned “Light On.” Elsewhere, Cook exercises his right to rawk with the swaggering, gritty “Bar-ba-sol” and bares his soul alongside a delicate piano and string arrangement on “Permanent.” There are some lyrical missteps (“Life on the Moon,” which marvels at the titular concept), but as the lone rocker winner of “Idol” to date, Cook stands apart from cookie-cutter pop.
Dido, “Safe Trip Home”Dido’s haunted voice is a flat line: Whether she’s singing bold dismissals like “I can’t look at you this morning,” or loving declarations like “My heart has found its home,” those gauze-covered pipes never modulate. So the sonic settings into which they’re placed are all the more important. Her third studio album employs fewer electronic whooshes and more real instruments than the previous two, making it smaller, finer and a better showcase for her uncluttered melodies and lyrics. There are a lot of perfect little songs here; they run less than four minutes, but are rich and deep. “Quiet Times” is a shuffling, string-laden shanty that recalls great Brit folk-pop band the Sundays. “It Comes and It Goes” has an irresistible sway, while “The Day Before the Day” is quietly devastating. There isn’t a standout single, but this is Dido’s most fully realized and elegantly rendered collection.
Mavis Staples, “Live: Hope at the Hideout”Last year, Mavis Staples released a revelatory collection of protest songs (“We’ll Never Turn Back”) that, though such a thing was hardly needed, reaffirmed her vitality in the current music scene. “Hope at the Hideout” is her victory lap, a joyous house party that benefits from a wonderful alignment of the stars: It was recorded in her return to a cozy, sold-out blues house in Staples’ Chicago hometown and released on Election Day. At 69, Staples’ power-train voice is close to rugged perfection throughout, and she’s wonderfully fired up. And while the studio versions of these tracks are driven by a singular purpose, their live cousins shimmer and shake. Nowhere is that clearer than on a lively and soulful “For What It’s Worth,” a soaring “This Little Light” and the singularly majestic “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Il Divo, “The Promise”Opera and ABBA: two great tastes that taste great together? In Il Divo’s hands, definitely. Unlike some in the wildly lucrative pop-classical scene, the four hunks in this baritone-beefcake boy band (originally created by “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell) couldn’t care less about converting serious-music snobs. They’re happy to pull every heartstring known to man — or at least middle-aged woman — which gives their crescendo-crammed records a kind of refreshing honesty. The quartet’s fifth full-length (including an easy-money 2005 Christmas set) is Il Divo’s most shameless — and therefore its most enjoyable — yet. Highlights include covers of Charles Aznavour’s “She” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (the latter in a surprisingly stripped-down arrangement), as well as an over-the-top reading of “The Winner Takes It All” that to post-“Mamma Mia!” ears sounds quite a lot like cha-ching.
Sammy Hagar, “Cosmic Universal Fashion”Sammy Hagar isn’t all tequila and sunburns on his first solo disc in eight years: This new set kicks off with a lightly industrial collaboration with young Iraqi songwriter Steven Lost that finds him reviving the “Right Now” approach to addressing deeper issues than the nation’s unreasonable speed limits. Hagar spends half the record in such uncharted waters, but before things get too serious, there’s “Loud,” a Spandex-and-codpiece rocker that teleported in from 1986; a cover of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” which did the same; and a country track called “When the Sun Don’t Shine,” basically a tribute to Jimmy Buffett, rock’s other premier tequila pitchman. The second half of the record depends on how you process the phrase “album-closing nine-minute unplugged version of ‘Dreams.’” But if you’re a 61-year-old beach bum with a pretty decent day job, what else would you do?