CRITIC'S CHOICE

Kings of Leon

Come Around Sundown |

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ROCK

"This could be the end," sings Caleb Followill on "The End"-the opening track of Come Around Sundown-as if he's worried that Kings of Leon might crumble under the weight of expectation following 2008's breakthrough hit Only by the Night. Clearly, though, the Followill kingdom is in no danger: This album cements their place as new rock royalty. Indeed, the charging "Radioactive" is an arena-ready anthem on the order of U2. There are also cell-phone-waving ballads-such as the slow-burning "Pyro"-in the vein of "Use Somebody." Elsewhere, the Followill boys work sexy, slyly funky grooves like "Pony Up" while channeling the Four Seasons on "Mary." Although not quite a home run-it sags a bit in the middle-Sundown is no letdown.

Shakira

Sale El Sol |

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LATIN POP

Shakira's hips may not lie, but her Madonna turn on last year's She Wolf didn't always ring true. This quick follow-up, Sale El Sol (translation: The Sun Comes Out), lets Shakira be Shakira. The radiant results-with the Colombian crossover star singing mostly in Spanish-range from melodic ballads to punchy rockers and rhythmic fiesta-starters. The highlight? "Rabiosa," a dance-floor scorcher.

Sugarland

The Incredible Machine |

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COUNTRY-POP

On The Incredible Machine, Sugarland continues to crank out the kind of glossy, slick country-pop that may not endear them to purists but will get plenty of love on the radio. Whether it's the rock thump of "All We Are," the power balladry of "Tonight" or the soulful shuffle of "Every Girl Like Me," they thumb their noses at tradition and play to the masses. Even an acoustic-guitar-driven ditty like "Stuck Like Glue" owes much more to Jason Mraz than Johnny Cash. And while there's a manufactured quality to their sound, there's no denying the duo's nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship. Jennifer Nettles sparkles on lead vocals, especially on her close-up "Shine the Light."

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In the wake of Christina Aguilera's split with husband Jordan Bratman,"You Lost Me"-the Bionic ballad on which she laments, "We had magic/And this is tragic"-is even more heartrending.

DARIUS RUCKER

Charleston, SC 1966

On his second country outing, which includes the regretful hit "Come Back Song," Rucker proves that 2008's Learn to Live was no fluke. He can leave Hootie behind him now.

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JOSHUA RADIN

The Rock and the Tide

There's nothing here that hasn't been done better by John Mayer, Jack Johnson and Damien Rice. Still, Rock is solid sensitive-male stuff.

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BIG TIME RUSH

BTR

Propelled from the Nickelodeon show Big Time Rush, this boy band is more Backstreet/'N Sync than JoBros but can't approach the best of any of them.

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FISTFUL OF MERCY

As I Call You Down

A new supergroup featuring Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison (George's son) casts a hazy beauty on these folky tunes.

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R. KELLY drops the bump-and-grind and shows his sensitive side to the ladies on "When a Woman Loves," an old-school slow jam from the R&B star. $1.29 at zune.net.

NATASHA BEDINGFIELD delivers a self-empowering message on "Strip Me," the acoustic-guitar-laced title track of her third set, due Nov. 9. $1.29 at iTunes.com.

MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE comes back blazing on "The Only Hope for Me Is You," from Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, out Nov. 22. $0.99 at amazon.com.