I Am Me
Few artists have had as much to prove with their second disc as Ashlee Simpson. Last year she went from likely Grammy nominee for her triple-platinum debut Autobiography to poster girl for today's manufactured talent after being caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live. Not since Toto exposed the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain had someone been discovered in such a blatant sham. But Simpson comes out strong on I Am Me. In fact, the feisty first single, "Boyfriend," with its jagged guitar riff and snarling lyrics (rumored to have been directed at Lindsay Lohan in response to tabloid stories claiming that Simpson stole Lohan's ex Wilmer Valderrama), is probably the best thing she's ever done. Working again with Grammy-winning producer John Shanks, whose female-heavy clientele has also included Kelly Clarkson, Hilary Duff and Lohan, Simpson gamely cranks out other solid pop-rockers like the self empowering title track, on which she defiantly sings, "I am me and I won't change for anyone." Too bad she loses sight of her own musical identity on the bad Britney knockoff "Burnin Up" and the bubblegum-ish "L.O.V.E." Elsewhere, Simpson, who cowrote all 11 tunes, reveals the emotional fallout of her SNL fiasco on the power ballad "Beautifully Broken": "It seems like yesterday that my world fell from the sky/ It seems like yesterday I didn't know how hard I could cry." While I Am Me may not erase the memory of that disastrous day, it should at least help Simpson avoid the sophomore slump that she seemed doomed to suffer.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Boyfriend"
Playing the Angel
After solo releases by principals Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in 2003, the reunion of Depeche Mode is indeed cause for black celebration. The group's 11th studio album—and first with frontman Gahan sharing" songwriting duties with Gore—finds Depeche plugging back into the synth-pop sound they pioneered in the '80s and that's back in style thanks to neo-new wave bands like the Killers and the Bravery. And their ambient soundscapes show that they were electronica before electronica was cool. The first single, "Precious," is a moody gem in the vein of "Enjoy the Silence," while "Damaged People" is a glorious, gothy ballad. But the gloomy dudes actually flash a bit of optimism in the darkness of "Nothing's Impossible."
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Precious"
When it's time to get busy on the dance floor, Sean Paul is your man. The Jamaican reggae star's third album, which follows up his Grammy-winning 2002 hit Dutty Rock, should get the party bumping from Kingston to Kansas City. With his hot dancehall beats on cuts like the first single, "We Be Burnin,' " and the contagious "Breakout," the rapid-fire "toaster" (a reggae-style rapper) delivers a crowd-pleasing set that aims to exercise your booty if not your brain. Displaying a lilting singing voice on the old-school "Never Gonna Be the Same," though, he turns wistful as he pays tribute to a departed friend.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "We Be Burnin' "
After the mainstream breakthrough of her self-titled last disc—which featured the VH1-ready hit "Why Can't I?"—'90s alt-rock darling Liz Phair was exiled from indieville. But her fifth outing finds the singer-guitarist continuing to make herself right at home in more pop-friendly territory. Cuts such as the sunny "Lost Tonight" and the sweetly melancholy single "Everything to Me" are as glossily good as it gets. The deceptively breezy title tune—the best Sheryl Crow song that Sheryl Crow never wrote—is every bit the catchy confection that "Why Can't I?" was. Still, on tracks like the edgy rocker "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into," this chick shows that she hasn't completely lost her attitude.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Somebody's Miracle"
Hits I Missed...And One I Didn't
The only person likely to not love this inspired collection is Billy Sherrill. As Jones's longtime producer, Sherrill was complicit when the singer originally passed on many of the great country songs he now catches up to on this disc (produced by Keith Stegall). It's an album of highlights, but it would be hard to beat Jones's poignant reading of Willie Nelson's great "Funny How Time Slips Away" and his beautiful duet with Dolly Parton on "The Blues Man," the best thing Hank Williams Jr. ever did. The one he didn't miss out on? "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today," his signature hit that he remakes here.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "The Blues Man"
Doin' Somethin' Right
Currington may have gotten a lot of exposure last year from his duet with label-mate Shania Twain on "Party for Two"—especially from his appearance in the song's video—but it was more of a marketing triumph than a musical one. Thankfully, on his second set, he stays grounded in real country music rather than the overcommercialized pablum he dabbled in with Shania. He gives the decidedly unslick Kenny Rogers standby "Lucille" its poignant due. In a sprightlier vein, he offers the lively "I Wanna Be a Hillbilly" ("Subdivisions are silly/ I wanna be a hillbilly"). Also boasting an appealing earthiness is "She Knows What to Do with a Saturday Night." Backed throughout by a zoned-in group of musicians, Currington keeps his voice as well as his head in the right place.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "I Wanna Be a Hillbilly"