Neil Diamond, “Home Before Dark”Though Neil Diamond is riding the good will created by 2005’s Rick Rubin-produced “12 Songs,” there is a song on “Home Before Dark” called “Don’t Go There,” and the danger of overemotive “Heartlight”-ness always looms. While not quite as revealing and rewarding as its 2005 cousin, the new album will certainly please fans of Rubin and Diamond’s stark-yet-comfy acoustic direction. The sprawling opener, “If I Don’t See You Again,” has the right sprinkling of epic; “Another Day (That Time Forgot)” is a gorgeous duet with Natalie Maines. It’s hard to shake the feeling that “Home” sounds like the younger brother of “12 Songs,” but it’s a warm, supremely confident next step in Diamond’s unlikely renaissance. Best of all, there’s not a seagull to be found.
Robyn, “Robyn”She’s a two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize for Super-Foxiest Female Ever. Does stunt doubles for Jackie Chan on the weekends. Out super-freaked Rick James. Is there anything Robyn can’t do? While these accomplishments intoned by the booming voice in the intro to “Robyn” might be a stretch, there’s no contesting the Swedish singer’s pop music power. “Robyn” finally sees its U.S. release: From the cheeky hip-hop of “Konichiwa Bitches” and the warped bass underpinning her cover of Teddybears’ “Cobra Style” to the Kylie Minogue-esque “With Every Heartbeat” and sweeping strings carrying “Be Mine,” the album holds 14 sassy and sweet dance pop gems.
The Last Shadow Pup, “The Age of the Understatement”Given that he finds regular employment as frontman of alt-rock phenomenon Arctic Monkeys, it’s unlikely that Alex Turner has any immediate plans to give up the day job. But should he ever decide he’s finished with Monkey business, he could do a lot worse than concentrate on this extracurricular collaboration with Miles Kane of rising U.K. band the Rascals. Already No. 1 in Britain, “Understatement” is a far cry from the Monkeys’ stock-in-trade of grubby urban realism, instead resembling a long-lost Scott Walker album or James Bond soundtrack. Songs like “Calm Like You” and “Black Plant” positively swing, and despite the presence of a 22-piece orchestra, the lyrical bite and brisk pacing mean things never topple into cheesy pastiche. Moonlighting hasn’t been this much fun since Bruce Willis had hair.
Clay Aiken, “On My Way Here”In the Broadway show that is Clay Aiken’s public life, he is, of course, the leading man. His fourth full-length progresses just like the Original Cast Recording, with character development songs early, beatific love songs in the middle and a denouement of regret and lessons learned. Aiken, who debuted on the Great White Way this year in “Spamalot,” sings like a theater veteran: almost too perfect, with a self-aware showmanship. But that doesn’t make pop-rock nuggets like “Ashes” any less catchy, or the ballads — on which Aiken’s breathy tenor could break housewife hearts — ring any less true. With big American melodies, stock adult-contemporary production and general inoffensiveness throughout, this should satisfy his army of self-dubbed Claymates.
Barenaked Ladies, “Snacktime!”A Barenaked Ladies children’s album is about as inevitable as gas prices climbing above the $4 mark. With its balance of whimsy, heart, silliness and songcraft, BNL is uniquely suited to the task. It would be hard to find anyone who can’t relate to the insightful empathy of Stephen Page’s “Bad Day” or the plain-spoken desires (“I wish I could speak with my dog ... ’cause right now it’s a monologue”) of Ed Robertson’s breezy “Wishing.” Page and Robertson echo their humorous “If I Had $1000000” dialogue style on “I Don’t Like” and “Crazy ABC’s,” while multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn steps up with a variety of such genially oddball tracks as “Humongous Tree,” “What a Wild Tune” and “Allergies.”
Gavin DeGraw, “Gavin DeGraw”On his sophomore album — the follow-up to 2003’s slow-building platinum smash “Chariot” — Gavin DeGraw deftly weaves together rock, pop and soul influences without letting the seams show. This 12-song set leans more on its rock muscle than anything else, with biting guitar chords punctuating DeGraw’s taut and tuneful melodies in the opening track and first single, “In Love With a Girl.” DeGraw’s soulful vocal swoops stand out on “I Have You to Thank,” while his balladeer side emotes on “Young Love” and “Let It Go.” “We Belong Together” moves from an anthemic start into a delicate dynamic build that provides a master class in DeGraw’s deft straddling of craft and passion.
Craig David, “Trust Me”This London-based crooner emerged in the early ’00s as the face of Britain’s 2-step scene, but on his fourth full-length release, Craig David doesn’t sound tethered to any one sound in particular: In opener “Hot Stuff” he channels disco-era Michael Jackson over a sizable sample of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”; “Friday” has an old-school funk flavor; “Don’t Play With Our Love” rides a tasty Latin-jazz groove, in a nod to Havana, where the album was recorded. Though Martin Terefe’s production features loads of ear-tickling detail — check out the furious horn chart in “6 of 1 Thing” — David’s strongest vocal performance comes in the CD’s most stripped-down cut, “Just a Reminder.” It’s perfect for Robin Thicke fans worried that Thicke’s upcoming disc won’t include another “Lost Without U.”
Bostich + Fussible, “Tijuana Sound Machine”Nortec Collective, the group of Tijuana master fusionists of electronica and traditional Mexican instrumentation, presents two of its member DJs in a demented new session. What starts out as a cute do-si-do of accordion and bass moves into pleasantly eerie raver territory, with chopped-up brass providing the beat ... and then we go to a hayride on speed. Bostich and Fussible have a perhaps unparalleled ability to show off what an accordion can do: provide a percussive background, a furious dance melody or a meditative jam. Ditto for tubas and trumpets, which build joyously from New Orleans marching band style to dance-floor anthem. This is one party you don’t want to miss.
Tokio Hotel, “Scream”Europe’s answer to emo, Tokio Hotel is a platinum-selling teen-pop band from Germany with a penchant for heavy guitars, big choruses and spectacular hair. Now the youthful foursome, led by the wildly androgynous 18-year-old Bill Kaulitz, takes on America with “Scream,” which features English versions of material from their two studio albums, “Schrei” and “Zimmer 483.” Tokio Hotel’s forte is uber-anthemic power ballads, delivered in a Teutonic accent with heartbreaking sincerity. Kaulitz’s gender-bending vocals make “On the Edge” sound like Nena covering Nirvana, and the soaring slow dance “By Your Side,” from the movie “Prom Night,” couldn’t be more arena-ready. Emo kids will flock to German class when they hear the original version of “Monsoon,” the band’s biggest hit, which closes this strangely fascinating Euro-glam effort.