Taylor Swift, "Red" (Big Machine)
"Red" is Swift's fourth album since her breakout debut in 2006, and it's the most consistently surprising of the lot -- even if it reveals an artist whose success has most definitely gone to her head.
Versatility is the album's most striking characteristic. Beginning with the aspirational rock song "State of Grace," which sounds like a U2 cover circa "The Joshua Tree," and moving through dance pop of the Max Martin-produced "I Knew You Were Trouble" to the soft-rock gem "The Lucky One," Swift, 22, seems to have crossed some sort of emotional threshold. Absent are the tentative questions of a young woman trying to process life and love through song, and in their place are the assured words and music of a star who feels like she has learned a lot about life and wants to share her knowledge.
"Red" is a big record that reaches for Importance and occasionally touches it, filled with well-constructed pop songs Taylor-made for bedroom duets. If "Everything Has Changed," a powerful collaboration with British singer Ed Sheeran, or the mandolin-driven romance "Treacherous," were automobiles, they'd be parked in an Audi or BMW showroom -- sleek, solid and built for comfort. "Red" is clean, perfectly rendered American popular music.
But to toss one of Swift's better similes back at her, the pop fodder here at its worst feels "like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street." Much of the record's expansion is in sound rather than structure -- even if half of "Red" will still work perfectly well on commercial country radio playlists. Whether it's the harder rock of "State of Grace" or the Hallmark-ready treacle of "I Almost Do," at times Swift feels like a mere cypher for the music that surrounds her.
RANDALL ROBERTS, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Gary Clark Jr., "Blak and Blu" (Warner Bros.)
The 28-year-old guitarist from Austin, Texas, has been killing it on the road the past couple of years, from the South by Southwest festival to the White House, where he shared the stage with Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger and President Obama. Although the former teen prodigy has released independent albums before, "Blak and Blu" is his major label debut and his chance to properly introduce the range of his talents to the wider world.
Opening with the aptly titled "Ain't Messin' Around," Clark has showed off his Jimi Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan chops by the time the second song, "When My Train Comes In," has arrived. From there, he demonstrates various moves, from the pop hooks of "Travis County" to the hip-hop flavored beats of "The Life" to the doo-wop woo pitching of "Please Come Home" and still more impressive contemporary soul of "Things Are Changin'." A devastatingly good live act, this guitar slinger can back it up in the recording studio.
DAN DELUCA, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER