Halsey, "Hopeless Fountain Kingdom" (Astralwerks)
Over two albums, 22-year-old Halsey's music remains not quite as interesting as her life story. The New York singer (real name: Ashley Frangipane) regaled Rolling Stone last year with tales of buying Red Bull with her final $9 so she could stay up all night and avoid rape or kidnapping.
But little of that stark realism comes across on her follow-up to 2015's "Badlands," which is overproduced (by Halsey, heavy hitters Benny Blanco, Greg Kurstin and others) and full of cluttered musical details, like an unfortunate opening poem about "two households, both alike in dignity." Underneath the strings, synths, electro-noises, guest vocals from Migos' Quavo and Rihanna-like no-no-no moans are glimpses of dark, poignant songwriting.
The "100 Letters" narrative is about a woman who won't let her boyfriend touch her anymore; the boy in the busy ballad "Bad at Love" calls his girlfriend a name because she doesn't like his friends. Halsey is a strong new character in pop, a hybrid of P!nk and Lorde who still hasn't found her voice: "I'm fading away," she croons on "Angel on Fire," "you know I used to be on fire." It's perhaps more accurate to say she hasn't yet been on fire, at least musically. She's getting closer.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
Dan Auerbach, "Waiting on a Song" (Warner Bros.)
Even though they're a garage-blues duo, the Black Keys got big enough to sell out arenas because Auerbach turned out to have a far greater facility and comfort level with pop hooks than your typical would-be blues guitar hero. The song craftsman aspect of his musical personality was emphasized to a certain extent with his 2015 side project the Arcs, but it really flourishes on this charming throwback pop record, for which Auerbach's Nashville pals John Prine and Pat McLaughlin co-wrote the title track and guitar hero Duane Eddy dropped by for two cameos.
Some of the boppier numbers, such as the jingle-jangling "Shine on Me" and equally optimistic "Show Me" recall the casual 1980s master craftsmanship of the Traveling Wilburys and Dire Straits. (Mark Knopfler also is a guest.)
Since moving to Nashville from Akron, Ohio, in 2010, Auerbach has thrived as a songwriter and producer, with Dr. John, Lana Del Rey, Bombino and many more. As long-time-in-coming solo albums go (Auerbach's last was "Keep It Hid" in 2009), "Waiting on a Song" doesn't play the usual confessional "this is the real me" card. Except in the sense that it does show the real Dan Auerbach doing what he does best: making pop songs.
DAN DELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Chuck Berry, "Chuck"
• Katy Perry, "Witness"
• Ani DiFranco, "Binary"
• Lady Antebellum, "Heartbreak"
• Nickelback, "Feed the Machine"
• Phoenix, "Ti Amo"
• Gov't Mule, "Revolution Come, Revolution Go"
• Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, "Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie"
• Rise Against, "Wolves"
• Glen Campbell, "Adios"