Ke$ha, "Warrior" (RCA)
Ke$ha burst onto the scene with 2009's "Animal," a wonderland of bourbon-breath'd, glitter-flecked, dance-all-night moral relativists. "Warrior," her guest-laden follow-up, begins on a similar course. Lead single "Die Young" is a classic live-for-the-party anthem, while the Iggy Pop duet "Dirty Love" is deliciously, almost uncomfortably filthy.
But cracks begin to show in Ke$ha's neon body paint, through which we can see a beating, vulnerable heart. The house thumper "Wherever You Are" and the Strokes-assisted "Only Wanna Dance With You" celebrate love of the non-fleeting variety. Even the kiss-off "Thinking of You" reveals previously uncharted depths. While not a seamless process, the evolution of Ke$ha is fascinating to watch.
BRIAN HOWARD, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Bad Brains, "Into the Future" (Megaforce)
There's a sample on the new Bad Brains album that perfectly captures the influential D.C. punk band's early contact with audiences: "We figured if they didn't mind us being black, we didn't mind them being white." The statement, like the band, is an incitement, an acknowledgment of the occasionally uneasy relationship among punk, metal and race in the genre's formative years. It didn't hurt that Bad Brains, formed in 1977, was one of the most incendiary of the first-generation hard-core punk bands, influencing a wealth of acts, including the Beastie Boys and TV on the Radio.
Bad Brains offers a heavy blend of riffage and Rastafarianism on its first studio album in five years. The band presents brutal songs that often travel on meandering paths. "Youth of Today" starts hard and ends dubby, and "Come Down" is as ferocious a hard-core wind sprint as anything Bad Brains has ever done.
RANDALL ROBERTS, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Iris DeMent, "Sing the Delta" (Flariella)
DeMent certainly takes her time making albums. This is her first in eight years and her first collection of new original material in 16. When the results are this sublimely good, however, it's hard to complain.
The Arkansas-born singer, 51, may have been raised in Southern California, but her voice possesses an industrial-strength nasal twang, one that radiates frailty and resolve. The music, likewise, is still rooted in country and gospel, with DeMent's churchy piano underpinning most of the tracks. The vividly drawn songs bring striking depth and nuance to familiar themes, whether she's singing movingly about Mom and Dad, missing a loved one, or delivering a love song to her native South.
Perhaps nowhere does DeMent cut closer to the bone than on the songs that grapple with faith. On "If That Ain't Love," she sings about being overcome when Aretha Franklin comes on her car radio singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." But in "The Kingdom Has Already Come," she confesses: "I stopped in the church to pray/ It was the middle of the day/ And I don't even know if I believe in God." And that is followed by her devastating story about "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray."
NICK CRISTIANO, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER