Michael Jackson (Epic Records)
Michael Jackson was such a perfectionist about his music that he was notorious for releasing albums on a painfully slow timeline: His last album of new music was 2001's Invincible — eight years before his death — and that record was a six-year wait for Jackson's fans.
His estate is less discerning when it comes to his music. There are now two albums that have been released under Jackson's moniker since his untimely 2009 passing — 2010's Michael and now Xscape.
Like Michael, this latest posthumous release is a compilation of Jackson outtakes that includes material from decades ago, so there's already a dated feel to much of the album, despite the wizardry and production under the helm of Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, who worked with Jackson in the studio for one of the tracks.
But that doesn't necessarily negate the music, and some of the most enjoyable songs are the oldest: The first single, Love Never Felt So Good, with its mirrored-ball disco groove, is infectious and irresistible, with Jackson's youthful-sounding falsetto sounding like it is gliding. It was recorded in 1983.
The magic continues through the funky jam Chicago as well as Loving You, a smooth, dreamy track given a fresh, modern sound, thanks to the magic of well-placed keyboards and Timbaland, the album's main producer (the deluxe version of Xscape lets you compare the originals with the finished works). Songs like this make you wonder why Jackson shelved them.
Things start to falter a bit with A Place With No Name, which has the same beat and sound as Leave Me Alone from the Bad era and is lyrically weak: We can tell why Jackson left it on the cutting room floor. And it's a sentiment that most will share for about half of the eight-track album.
There will likely be more posthumous Jackson records, given his penchant for overproducing, but will it be music the world and Jackson's rabid fans (of which this writer is one) will cherish? Jackson may have been neurotic about recording, but it worked: In his adult career, he created two albums considered masterpieces and others that range in the spectrum of excellent to very good to good, which is an amazing track record.
Putting out music that falls below Jackson's standards — even if overly high — detracts from the carefully constructed catalog the King of Pop spent decades creating and protecting. The holders of Jackson's estate would be wise to apply some of the same standards the next time they consider releasing another posthumous album.
— NEKESA MUMBI MOODY,
Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch Records)
Natalie Merchant has never been one to pull punches.
From her start singing deceivingly jovial-sounding tunes about tough topics like child abuse and air pollution with seminal 1980s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs through her 21 years as a solo artist, Merchant has made her mark as an unflinchingly honest artist.
That fearlessness continues on the self-titled and self-produced Natalie Merchant, her first collection of entirely original songs in 13 years.
On the haunting Giving Up Everything, Merchant sings about mercy killing her craving, giving up her "cursed search for meaning." Think of it as her version of John Lennon's God.
Not everything is a downer. The opening track, Ladybird, is a jaunty toe-tapper. But that's quickly followed by Maggie Said, which begins with the line: "Maggie said dig one more shallow grave before I'm dead."
With her distinctive voice still in strong form as she enters her 50s, together with the lush backing of strings, piano, organ, and the occasional woodwinds, Merchant creates a rich musical tapestry that transcends the typical vagary of pop music.
— SCOTT BAUER,
Rascal Flatts Rewind (Big Machine)
Rascal Flatts may have named their ninth album, Rewind, but musically the country-pop trio takes a much-needed step forward.
Punching up arrangements with rock energy (Payback) and synth-pop flourishes (Honeysuckle Lazy), the band undergoes a contemporary country makeover as it celebrate its 15th year. The result makes for a more fun, mature and diverse sound — washing away the stale taste of recent outings.
On Rewind, lead singer Gary LeVox, bassist-pianist-singer Jay Demarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney take a bigger hand in their production, cutting more than half of the album on their own. Led by Demarcus, who has co-produced albums by Jo Dee Messina and the rock band Chicago, the trio moves the needle forward on the engaging DJ Tonight and the title cut, a recent country Top 10 hit.
The group also brought in pop veteran Howard Benson, who produced five cuts, including the dance floor-ready Powerful Stuff. Old hand Dann Huff, who had produced the band since 2006, worked with the group on the catchy Life's A Song, which sounds more like the old Rascal Flatts. But what makes Rewind exciting is that Rascal Flatts has fast-forwarded into the future.
— MICHAEL McCALL,