Despite recent splashy live performances—her Glastonbury set turned heads with covers of Kings of Leon, Prince and the Eurythmics—Beyoncé sounds rather uninspired on most of her fourth studio album. Radio-friendly pop structures and hooks are in short supply, replaced instead by shapeless ballads and torchy trilling. 4 only perks up when Beyoncé harnesses the music’s nuanced production: “Love on Top” and the André 3000-featuring “Party” are early-’90s-R&B throwback jams; “Countdown” boasts drumline-esque percussion and “End of Time” is a horn-bursting flamenco twirl. And buried at the end of 4 is its highlight, “Run the World (Girls),” which gives M.I.A. a run for her money.
Jill Scott The Light of the Sun
Jill Scott’s fourth studio album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. This long-overdue nod of commercial validation parallels the soul/R&B vet’s lyrical and musical maturation. The Light of the Sun focuses on sensual neo-soul, gospel-tinged piano swoons, intimate slow jams and slinky, welcoming R&B. In fact, the soft-glow disco-soul hit “So in Love” and funkier “Shame,” which feature Anthony Hamilton and Eve, respectively, are the album’s liveliest moments. Such mellower soundscapes are but a foundation for Scott’s introspective declarations and velvety vocals, highlighted by the spoken-word “Womanifesto” and poignant, wistful “Missing You.” Sun isn’t flashy or fancy; it’s just neo-soul at its finest.
Gillian Welch The Harrow & The Harvest
The alt-country heroine’s first studio album in eight years—Welch attributes the delay to writer’s block and disliking the music she had written during that time—is worth the wait. Subdued and stripped-back, The Harrow & The Harvest is the perfect intersection of bluegrass, sweetheart-country and folk; simple acoustic guitar, buckling banjo and Welch’s wizened vocals dominate these midtempo songs. Although Harvest lacks instrumental and dynamic variety, which can make it feel somewhat sleepy, the album’s trenchant lyrics are mesmerizing. Thanks to graceful language and vivid descriptors, these Southern-steeped tales explore heartbreak, sin and violence with the gentle touch of a poet laureate.