Carrie Underwood, “Carnival Ride”After a debut album that sold 6 million-plus copies, Carrie Underwood is under significant pressure to keep the momentum going. The Oklahoman delivers in spades on her sophomore effort, on which she was much more involved in the creative process. First single “So Small,” No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, is a soaring song about the important things in life. “Just a Dream” is the tale of the death of a young soldier from the perspective of his girl back home, while “Last Name,” about a drunken flirtation that turns into a Vegas marriage, is a fun diversion. Underwood provides a growling and gritty vocal on the defiant “Flat on the Floor” and convincingly covers Randy Travis’ 1988 hit “I Told You So,” which has long deserved a second life.
Britney Spears, “Blackout”There’s an appropriate bleakness to Britney Spears’ first album in four years, and her first as a tabloid figure rather than a vibrant teen idol. The hazy-eyed bump-and-grind of her “Gimme More” MTV Video Music Awards performance fits all this material: It’s defiant like a bad drunk, uncomfortably oversexed and more at home in a seedy after-hours club than a celebrity ultra-lounge. The music ranges from shockingly minimal — “Piece of Me” and “Radar” have the synth fugues and smudgy bass of current underground electro and little else — to novelty pop, like the J.J. Fad-styling of “Freakshow” and Gwen Stefani-ripping snare march of “Toy Soldier.” Spears is threatening or seducing, or both, on every track. This is still pop, but the last bits of Spears’ song-and-dance girl veneer are cracking, along with the rest of her public persona.
The Eagles, “Long Road Out of Eden”The first Eagles album since 1979 rolls forth with the one-two punch of the harmony-laden “No More Walks in the Wood” and the familiar-sounding country rock of “How Long,” a J.D. Souther song from the early ’70s that could just as easily have been the follow-up to “Take It Easy.” The rest is more vintage Eagles, cutting the usual wide stylistic swath from rockers like “Fast Company” and Joe Walsh’s Steely Dan-flavored “Last Good Time in Town” to country-flavored midtempos, heart-rending ballads, funk, brow-furrowing introspection and pointed sociopolitical commentaries (”Business As Usual” and the 10-minute title track). It’s all a testament to the durable Eagles footprint on the pop landscape.
Backstreet Boys, “Unbreakable”While the turn of phrase may be cliché, the overall sound of “Unbreakable” screams it loud and clear: Backstreet’s back. Unlike 2005’s uneven “comeback” album, “Never Gone,” this follow-up finds the Boys dipping into their old bag of classic pop songs. They are a boy band with spot-on harmonies: They sing huge, hooky choruses; belt out sappy bridges; and bop and groove to slickly produced dance numbers. Nearly everything here is top 40 or adult contemporary radio-ready, particularly the piano-driven first single, “Inconsolable,” and the Beatles-y “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon.” The boy-band heyday might be long over, and the group is now a man down (Kevin Richardson departed to pursue other interests), but Backstreet’s ready to try to melt your heart once again.
Various Artists, “I’m Not There”There are tribute albums, and there are tribute albums to Bob Dylan that are two discs long and packed full of hipsters; “I’m Not There” is one of those ideas that will probably appeal to about as many people as it disquiets. But as you might expect, most of the homages on this sonic all-star game are reverent to the point of worshipful: Jeff Tweedy’s “Simple Twist of Fate” is spare and lovely, Jim James and Calexico unite for a gorgeous “Goin’ to Acapulco” and John Doe’s gospeled-up “Pressing On” (from “Saved”) and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” are among the best of the bunch. As for the man himself, Dylan turns in the first official release of the oft-bootlegged title track with the Band, recently discovered in Neil Young’s archives.
Avenged Sevenfold, “Avenged Sevenfold”Four albums into a steadily building career, Avenged Sevenfold steps up to make its Artistic Statement. “Scream” mixes drum machine rhythms with jagged guitar chords to industrial-strength effect, while strings weave in and out of “Afterlife.” “Gunslinger” kicks off with acoustic guitar and deftly blends the melodic and metallic; arpeggiating piano and operatic backing vocals mark the Goth-flavored “Unbound (The Wild Ride)”; and pedal steel brings a cowboy-from-hell vibe to “Dear God,” which ends with a guitar duel that’s equal parts “Hotel California” and “Freebird.” “A Little Piece of Heaven,” meanwhile, is a wildly theatrical piece — the band’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if you will — that incorporates Eastern European melodies, keyboards and horns. Such tracks as “Critical Acclaim” and “Almost Easy” keep the crank factor high — but as part of a bolder, broader and more engaging soundscape.
Playaz Circle, “Supply & Demand”While acts continue to break into the rap scene with fun, youthful tracks that boost singles and digital sales, Tity Boi and Dolla Boy of Playaz Circle keep things a bit traditional. The Atlanta natives’ Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam debut, “Supply & Demand,” is packed with insightful storytelling and sharp production that keeps the album engaging from start to finish. On “Dear Mr. LA Reid,” the duo rhyme about its longtime struggle to break into the music business and its endless love for rap. Absentee fathers and strong single mothers get their due on the piano-laced “Let Me Fly.” Even when it’s boasting about usual subjects like street life (the Lil Wayne-assisted “Duffle Bag”) or wealth (the violin-heavy “Paper Chaser”), Playaz Circle’s way with words stands tall.
Toni Price, “Talk Memphis”Before abruptly pulling up stakes for San Diego earlier this year, Toni Price owned Tuesday evenings in Austin. The singer was the attraction at “hippie hour,” an after-work musical workout that kept the Continental Club packed for 15 years. On what appears to be her seventh album, she digs into the deep soul catalog but avoids the obvious: Covers include Bert Russell and Jeff Barry’s “Am I Groovin’ U,” a 1960s R&B hit for Freddie Scott, and Isaac Hayes & David Porter’s “Leftover Love,” a relatively obscure Mabel John track. “What I’m Puttin’ Down” is the showstopper here, largely due to David Grissom’s guitar solo, which sounds as spontaneous as it is inspired. Unlike other spotlight rock-blues singers, Price is not a shouter or shrieker. She is a musical conversationalist, whose matter-of-fact delivery is her great allure. She never sings at you; she sings to you.