NEW YORK (Billboard) - We may have love affairs with all kinds of gimmicky divas, but it takes Christina Aguilera to remind us that singing really matters. That’s not to say the pop star’s latest release, “Bionic,” is all about her voice, a muscular acrobat that’s become more elegant with age. Combine it with the inventive work of a diverse cast of producers and you’ve got the best mainstream pop album of the year thus far. Sure, “Bionic” was made for a post-Lady Gaga world, where the comparisons are inevitable and the sales stakes are high. But from the fidgety intro of the dub-tastic opening title track (produced by Santigold collaborators John Hill & Switch) to punk-brat driving song “My Girls” (produced by Le Tigre, with a guest rap from Peaches) to Aguilera’s gloriously restrained delivery on “All I Need” (Sia Furler co-produced the vocals), the 18-song set shows an artist confident enough to take direct cues from her tuned-in creative team. Because she’s bold enough to do it her way, Aguilera maintains her reign.
ALBUM: KORN III -- REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE (Roadrunner Records)
A subtitle like “Remember Who You Are” implies a blast back to the past. That may be just what Korn intended by bringing back Ross Robinson, who produced the heavy rockers’ first two albums. But “Korn III” (a reference to this lineup as the third incarnation of the band) moves forward more than it retrenches, referencing some stylistic trademarks while introducing some fresh dynamic sensibilities. It’s the likely result of adding touring drummer Ray Luzier as a permanent member as well as stripping away the experimental excursions of 2007’s untitled album in favor of a punchier and more direct approach. Frontman Jonathan Davis, who started “Korn III” as a concept album before shifting gears, is still a ball of rage -- “This is the time for truth and pain” he declares on the track “Holding All These Lies.” The rest of Korn pushes that fury on such densely textured fusillades as “The Past,” “Let the Guilt Go,” “Are You Ready to Live?” and opener “Oildale (Leave Me Alone).”
ALBUM: SWEET AND WILD (Valory Music)
Two years after she got her twang on, Jewel is still a country girl on her latest album, “Sweet and Wild.” But she steps a touch closer to the pop side than she did on 2008 set “Perfectly Clear.” Fiddle, pedal steel and the occasional banjo flavor rather than define the 11 songs here, and the bare-bones acoustic versions on a second disc included in the album’s deluxe version put Jewel right back into coffeehouse (or perhaps campfire) mode. The song “Summer Home in Your Arms” recalls her 1995 breakthrough hit, “You Were Meant for Me” (and, in fact, dates back to the same period), while “No More Heartaches” slyly but defiantly kisses off a man who’s done her wrong. And the lushly drawn “Fading” mixes a moody ambience with a quiet sense of desperation. The set is more sweet than it is wild, but it finds an effective middle ground between the multiplatinum troubadour and the modern country songstress.
ALBUM: ON THE RURAL ROUTE 7609 (Mercury/Island/UMe)
“On the Rural Route 7609” isn’t a boxed set meant to show off how many hits John Mellencamp has. There’s no “Small Town” or “Hurts So Good” -- most of the big ones aren’t here. Instead, this handsomely packaged four-disc, 54-track collection (complete with song-by-song annotation and full lyrics) documents the Indiana rocker’s career as ambitious songwriter, insightful societal observer, sharp-tongued sociopolitical commentator and, occasionally, raconteur -- a performer who’s done far more than just R-O-C-K in the USA. Dotted with 14 unreleased tracks (including readings of “Jim Crow” by Cornel West and “The Real Life” by Joanne Woodward), it allows listeners to rediscover such laudable fare as “Jackie Brown,” “The Full Catastrophe,” “Theo and Weird Henry” and “Rural Route,” as well as appreciate Mellencamp’s music in fresh contexts. Particularly illuminating is a triplet of the abandoned “Jenny at 16,” a precursor of “Jack and Diane,” which follows in both demo and finished form. “On the Rural Route 7609” is a deserving and serious-minded overview for one of America’s underappreciated titans of song.
ALBUM: LA DIFFERENCE (Decca)
One of the most alluring aspects of Afro-pop singer Salif Keita’s sublime new album, “La Difference,” is its intimate feel. The arrangements -- at once richly textured and gracefully understated -- truly give the listener a sense of Keita as a singer-songwriter. Add to this the highly personal nature of the title track, a song in which Keita ruminates on his albinism and the rejection he endured growing up in Mali as a result of his white skin. The balance of the tracks don’t dwell on Keita’s difference, but the title track sets the tone of the set, both musically and in terms of his social commentary. The song “Ekolo d‘Amour,” for example, targets ecological issues in Africa, and “San Ka Na” addresses the urgent need to protect the Niger River. Keita also revisits a pair of previously recorded tunes, including “Folon.” With the aid of guitarists Bill Frisell and Seb Martel, Keita reprises “Folon” with an arrangement that’s quieter and more introspective than the 1995 version.
ALBUM: ALEX CUBA (Caracol Records)
Alex Cuba -- the Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter most recently known for co-writing Nelly Furtado’s 2009 Spanish-language debut album, “Mi Plan” -- lets his versatility shine on this follow-up to the psychedelic folk-rock of his 2009 album, “Agua del Pozo.” Cuba ventures into acoustic disco (“If You Give Me Love”), bluesy rock (“Que Pasa Lola?”) and a pop anthem, “Solo Tu,” that should be the envy of every commercial Latin artist for whom Cuba likely will write. He’s adept at filling his music with colors, textures and temperatures of the different worlds he thrives in by using funky horns, tender acoustic guitars and thoughtful lyrics.
ALBUM: LAZARUS (Decaydance Records/Fueled by Ramen)
Relaxation, nostalgia, partying and acceptance. Such are the four stages of Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy’s dynamic solo debut, “Lazarus.” The 10-track album’s inclusion of reggae-influenced beats and dance jams may polarize listeners, but its snappy wordplay and deep introspection will appeal to a wide demographic of music lovers. The track “Need You” showcases McCoy’s lyrical finesse, but he does best when exhibiting raw emotion. “Akidagain” incorporates children chanting over bittersweet piano, and the organ-laden “Don’t Pretend” seems to reference the singer’s ex-flame Katy Perry. Fans might love or detest campy dance anthems like “After Midnight,” but the relatable themes -- as heard on “The Manual,” a track about self-acceptance -- will appeal to all.