Chris Brown, "Fortune" (RCA)

Although several singles have been unleashed in advance of "Fortune," many people won't have to hear the first note of any track on his new release to have an opinion about it. Those who see Brown as a violent, egomaniacal bully will predictably hate it, and, just as inevitably, those who think he's a brilliant talent who deserves to be forgiven for his past will love it.

Yet Brown doesn't have all that much to do with the merits of "Fortune." He's an above-par singer, bordering on anonymous, and the lyrics are simply rote lines about sex, braggadocio and love -- the kind of stuff that might be expected of a hedonistic 23-year-old man.

"Fortune" rises and falls at the command of its producers, and there's a different lineup at the helm of each song. Plus, you don't even want to know how many songwriters had a hand in conjuring this often-formulaic material. As a result, Brown is tossed about in the choppy seas of inconsistency. It may be hard to find middle ground for such a polarizing performer as Brown, but "Fortune" is inescapably middling.


The Flaming Lips, "The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends" (Warner Bros.)

Sometimes it's easier to recognize genius than it is to enjoy it. That will be the case for many who hear this project assembled by Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who along with Steven Drozd are sonic scientists who somehow infuse continuity into what should have been a weird, piecemeal collection of one-off collaborations with a disparate gang of musicians. Originally released as a vinyl album in April for Record Store Day, "Heady Fwends" now makes its way out on digital and CD formats.

To Coyne's credit, there's a healthy supply of indie upstarts -- Neon Indian, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Tame Impala -- who leave a little DNA at this cacophonous crime scene. Also noteworthy: Aaron Behrens of Ghostland Observatory delivers distinctly delicious storytelling on a scratchy "Tasered and Maced."

This is an austere universe populated by a collection of misfits and underdogs. There's little in the way of mainstream reward -- headaches are a possibility -- yet the ugly/beautiful sound flows with a kind of otherworldly purpose, the destiny of a ragtag army on a unified mission.


Beachwood Sparks, "The Tarnished Gold" (Sub Pop)

Beachwood Sparks released two very good albums of cosmic Californian alt-country in the early '00s before splintering, but they return now with an album that sounds less like a reincarnation or a reinvention than a natural extension. "Tarnished Gold" is Beachwood's best. Flying Burrito Brothers and Byrds comparisons are still apt, with pedal steel guitar softly threading through songs full of resonant harmony vocals. But "The Tarnished Gold" shimmers with an easygoing confidence and a communal spirit that seems wiser, more mature, less overtly nostalgic. It's an album of subtle details -- a little banjo here, a Band-like organ there -- all in the service of sunny, relaxed melodies.