• Kelly Clarkson, 'Stronger' (RCA)

    Kelly Clarkson, 'Stronger' (RCA)

    Nearly a decade after she became the first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson's principal artistic asset -- beyond that fire hose of a voice, of course -- remains her believability. Who else at this level could refer credibly to herself and an ex as "just a couple of kids trying to figure out how to live," as she does on "I Forgive You"? Stronger isn't Clarkson's long-promised Nashville album; it mostly sticks to the bright-and-shiny bubble-grunge sound of "Since U Been Gone." But she delivers tunes like "Einstein" and the disco-glam title track with a country singer's earthy conviction. She's not Katy Perry, not yet Carrie Underwood. But look out.

  • Puscifer, 'Conditions of My Parole' (Puscifer)

    Puscifer, 'Conditions of My Parole' (Puscifer)

    On the second full-length by his electro-rock side project, Maynard James Keenan sounds no less gloomy (or doomy) than he does with Tool -- see "The Rapture," which ain't about the dance-punk group. But Conditions of My Parole, featuring a supporting cast that includes Keenan's son Devo and ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, reveals a more reassuring side of a singer better known for willful alienation. "You're not alone," he promises in "Tumbleweed," while a banjo gently weeps; the surprisingly Postal Service-like "Oceans" offers respite to a "weary traveler, callused and sore." He'll leave the black light on for you.

  • blink-182, 'Neighborhoods' (DGC/Interscope)

    blink-182, 'Neighborhoods' (DGC/Interscope)

    "Hold on -- the worst is yet to come," sing the man-children of blink-182, and you gotta give 'em credit for flipping the usual reunion-album rhetoric. Indeed, the lean, ten-track Neighborhoods feels surprisingly -- and refreshingly -- low-key. Yet the band once used their SoCal nonchalance as cover for some deceptively profound observations on the complexity of adolescence. Here, though, watery, joke-free confessionals like "This Is Home" and "After Midnight" sound comparatively adrift, stranded between the touching self-examination of 2003's blink-182 and the examination of self-touching with which they made their name.

  • Staind, 'Staind' (Atlantic)

    Staind, 'Staind' (Atlantic)

    Staind frontman Aaron Lewis spent the three years since these nü-metal bellowers' last album successfully pursuing a solo country career à la Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish. You don't really hear that stylistic growth, though, on this slab of down-tuned chug-and-glug, which finds the band returning to the grim recriminations of early tunes like "Mudshovel" and "Suffocate." The exception? Closing track "Something to Remind You," a disarmingly gorgeous doom-folk ballad that awaits its Jamey Johnson cover.

  • Bush, 'The Sea of Memories' (Zuma Rock/eOne)

    Bush, 'The Sea of Memories' (Zuma Rock/eOne)

    To clarify, the band name here doesn't quite signify the post-grunge hit factory you grew up pretending to hate. On the first Bush album since 2001's Golden State, frontman Gavin Rossdale and drummer Robin Goodridge are flanked by a pair of new recruits, including guitarist Chris Traynor, who also played in Rossdale's short-lived Institute. Still, Memories does indeed trigger some, particularly when a big-chorused rocker ("The Afterlife") opens up like a razor-blade suitcase. As for the ballads, you're better off YouTubing "Glycerine" -- or one of the tearjerkers ("Forever May You Run" ) from Rossdale's underappreciated 2008 solo disc.

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, 'I'm With You' (Warner Bros.)

    Red Hot Chili Peppers, 'I'm With You' (Warner Bros.)

    Given Red Hot Chili Peppers' congenital inability to hold on to a guitarist, you'd expect them to sound unfazed on their first album since John Frusciante's 2009 departure. And often they do: "Did I Let You Know" has a sunny, mariachi-style horn break, while "Monarchy of Roses" and "Factory of Faith" both ride sleek disco-rock bass riffs by Flea, whose recent stint in Thom Yorke's future-funky Atoms for Peace seems to have made an impact. But listen to Anthony Kiedis' words -- a dubious source?of big-picture meaning, we'll admit -- and I'm With You suggests that these uplift mofo party planners have been pondering nothing so much as their own funerals.

  • Sunny Sweeney, 'Concrete' (Republic Nashville)

    Signed by the guy who shepherded Taylor Swift to superstardom, this fresh-faced country lass considers the sweet torture of young romance with a similarly exacting eye. In a nifty twist, though, Sunny Sweeney excels at playing the cheater, not the cheated: "From a Table Away" illuminates the other woman's plight over a gorgeous neo-countrypolitan arrangement, while the rougher-hewn "Amy" works like a role-reversal take on Dolly Parton's "Jolene," begging an over-it wife to let her love-?hungry hubby go. Call it "He Belongs With Me."

  • Various Artists, 'Muppets: The Green Album' (Walt Disney)

    Lending some buzz to the Muppets brand a few months ahead of Jason Segel's big-screen reboot, The Green Album features such alt-culture types as OK Go and Sondre Lerche tackling the furry friends' songbook. My Morning Jacket sound right at home on "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," while Rivers Cuomo and Hayley Williams conjure some bizarro odd-couple energy in "The Rainbow Connection." Most impressively, though, Andrew Bird sidesteps the precious self-pity you'd expect from "Bein' Green": His Kermit gets the clever-to-cuddly ratio just right.

  • Boston Spaceships, 'Let It Beard' (Guided By Voices Inc.)

    Boston Spaceships, 'Let It Beard' (Guided By Voices Inc.)

    Now that Guided by Voices are back in (some kind of) business, will Robert Pollard finally shelve his numerous side projects? The latest from Boston Spaceships -- the singer's typically disheveled power-pop trio with ex-GBV bassist Chris Slusarenko and drummer John Moen of the Decemberists -- suggests so. As always with Pollard, there are flashes of retro-rock quality here, such as "Chevy Marigold,"a Stonesy white-soul ramble with wailing female backing vocals. But to call some of these 26(!) word-and-riff bombs unfinished would be charitable; a few even seem unwanted.

  • Theophilus London, 'Timez Are Weird These Days ' (Warner Bros.)

    Theophilus London, 'Timez Are Weird These Days ' (Warner Bros.)

    You'd better believe anything Theophilus London says about "these days": With contributions from various of-the-moment producers (TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, Santigold's John Hill), the Brooklyn boho's major-label debut is a painfully hip slice of style-mag electro-soul. London provides a hint of heart beneath the sleek surface on the disarmingly plaintive "Why Even Try," featuring Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara. But it's pretty rich hearing this unabashed exhibitionist use "Girls Girls $" to make an example of a lady who "got drunk and showed her pussy on World Star."

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