COUNTRY: Ronnie Dunn, "Ronnie Dunn" (Arista Nashville)
For 20 years, Brooks & Dunn was a partnership that felt like a marriage of convenience. The pair's mesmerizing 2005 single, "Believe," was Dunn's coming-out party, a visceral, churchy ballad about the hereafter that highlighted the full power of his voice, which he'd often had to keep in check so the thinner voiced Kix Brooks could keep up.
No one's holding Dunn back on his solo debut, one of the year's most impressive country releases and a showcase for sounds and moods that rarely felt at home in Brooks & Dunn, which disbanded last year. Dunn produced the album, and he's comfortable with a host of styles, including ZZ Top-style boogie ("Let the Cowboy Rock"), flashes of Bakersfield swing ("I Just Get Lonely") and ragged mariachi ("How Far to Waco").
As a singer, Dunn's edges are pleasantly rough; even his most lighthearted songs, such as "Let the Cowboy Rock," have a scrape to them. On "Singer in a Cowboy Band" he details the small things that make up a musician's life. If anything, he's a would-be preacher. On "Bleed Red," he sings with verve about the value of forgiveness. And "Cost of Livin'" is chilling, as Dunn takes on the role of an unemployed veteran staring down an uncertain future.
Dunn is impressive throughout this CD, but he sounds the most convincing on songs about fealty; in places it's an apology for sins not yet committed. "They called me a cowboy/No one could rope," he sings on "Your Kind of Love," a majestic showcase for his voice. "I Don't Dance," which on first blush sounds like a declaration of loyalty to an old country sound, is instead about remaining loyal on the road: "I don't dance, or play with the truth/take a chance of ever losing/the only one I sing my love songs to/I don't dance with anybody but you."
They're beautiful and affecting songs, the sort one sings as a tribute to a wife who has put up with 20 years of touring, and may have to settle for 20 more.
- JON CARAMANICA, NEW YORK TIMES
POP/ROCK: Arctic Monkeys, "Suck It and See" (Domino)
It's unreasonable to expect Arctic Monkeys to retain the breathless teenage verve and vitriol of their classic debut, 2006's "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not." On their subsequent two albums, they turned heavier and grungier, even drafting Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to help with 2009's "Humbug." The superior "Suck It and See" lets back in more light, humor and melody, although for those who prefer it, there's pummeling power, too.
Echoes of Brit-pop touchstones abound -- the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, Franz Ferdinand -- but "Suck It" also features some of the Brill Building archetypes that leader Alex Turner brought to his Last Shadow Puppets side project. Turner's a streetwise wordsmith, and the lyrics bustle with bon mots. "I poured my aching heart into a pop song / I couldn't get the hang of poetry," he sings in the title track, and poetry's loss is pop's gain.
- STEVE KLINGE, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER