Divas dominated the first half of this year, but the Adele-Britney-Gaga train wasn’t the only one rolling through. All three ladies, though, made our mid-year review, a look back at the last six months of Hear Me Out and the eight albums you mustn’t miss.
21 reflects a tumultuous split that left Adele with a broken heart and 11 songs, all done-up by a slick team of Top-40 producers. Wronged-woman balladry is the album's primary pursuit, with numbers like "Take It All," featuring a stunning bridge and choir, and showstopper "Someone Like You," a wrenching, repeat-worthy torch song with enough conviction penetrating her colossal wail to crush you into itty-bitty pieces. It's the voice of a classic in the making.
Britney Spears, Femme Fatale
Femme Fatale, Britney’s seventh studio album, is near-perfect pop – hooky, horny and heavy on the bangin’ beats. Even if Spears is the finger puppet played by a team responsible for putting on the show – producers, songwriters, even the photographer who took that fittingly flirty cover pic – Femme Fatale is Britney’s masterwork, boosted by one of those career best-ofs: “Criminal,” a flute-flecked song about falling for a bad boy that echoes early Madonna.
Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
"Dance while you can" is the lyrical creed off one of the best cuts, "Love Out of Lust," from the Swedish chanteuse's follow-up to 2008's "Youth Novels." But these aren't foot-shuffling songs. Even if they are electro-retro, they're chilly as ice – achy, wallowing and absolutely mesmerizing. "Unrequited Love" is a girl-group song in slo-mo whose sadness mounts because of her little-girl singing; it's a brilliant bummer.
Lucinda Williams, Blessed
That husky slur is still one of the Americana legend’s finest assets, and it works well when she snarls on “Buttercup” and pipes over a grungy guitar rollick on “Convince Me.” She doesn’t have to convince us; the songs, from “Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” to the powerful “Copenhagen,” do so on their own, as Williams sounds wiser, like she’s finally ready to look out instead of in. Years of heartbreak will do that to you.
Matraca Berg, The Dreaming Fields
Blessed with a sterling voice, it's a wonder we haven't heard more from Matraca Berg in the last 14 years. Berg's Dreaming Fields is mellow singer-songwriter music for the soul, mirroring legends like Emmylou Harris and Carole King. "A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June" closes this marvelously moving album on just piano and strings – and if there were any doubts that Berg should be a bigger deal, this is the song to change that.
Now unrecognizable as the dreamy piano-pop group – except that they still sing about love woes and new beginnings – this is practically a new formation. "Shot in the Dark" is a bouncy boost of optimism whose positivity is infectious. The rest of the seamless 10-track album is nearly just as solid. So of course they named Augustana after themselves – who wouldn't want to be remembered for this one?
The Decemberists, The King is Dead
The decision to downsize to organic accents and tangible narratives (no crazy forest creatures here) is not only an admirable exercise in music morphing, but one the quintet pulls off with expert panache. Frontman Colin Meloy sweetly sings of lost love on “January Hymn,” a nostalgic beauty. All of The King is Dead – even at a mere 10 tracks – works in a unison that feels more easy-going than anything they’ve ever done.
Lady Gaga, Born This Way
Gaga’s message of self-love in the face of adversity isn’t just part of the Born This Way emancipation proclamation, on which she celebrates all kinds of queers with kitschy ridiculousness that only Mother Monster could pull off. Almost every other club anthem on this very gay gospel of Gaga comes at you like a wrecking ball. Born This Way is strong enough for the everyman but made for the monsters. Two paws up.