Picks and Pans Main: Music

UPDATED 10/26/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/26/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

Tim McGraw

Southern Voice |

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COUNTRY

On "It's a Business Doing Pleasure with You," the cheeky first single from his new album, Tim McGraw sings about a money-grubbing honey: "I spent fifteen hundred dollars on your damn dog's collar/ Put new spinners on your Escalade/ I swear I almost started cryin' when you brought up buyin' diamonds/ Lord, I'm spending more than I'm getting paid." Despite the fact that the country star would have no problem keeping his lady and her pooch rolling in bling, the song (cowritten by Nickelback's Chad Kroeger) is pure fun. But the sure-voiced McGraw really hits his stride showing his sensitive side on wistful ballads such as the hindsightful "I Didn't Know It at the Time" and the mortality-facing "If I Died Today."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Mr. Whoever You Are," an aching heartbreaker

Joss Stone

Colour Me Free|

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R&B

Since Amy Winehouse and her beehive hit it big, Joss Stone has been somewhat overlooked. Colour Me Free—though not on the order of Winehouse's Back to Black, Adele's 19 or Duffy's Rockferry—proves that she should not be ignored in the U.K. retro-soul movement. At 22, Stone, who cowrote all but two songs, shows that she's still coming into her own as an artist, catching up to that big voice she's always had. She scores back-to-back highlights with the bluesy ballad "4 and 20" and the Al Greenish "Big Ole Game" (featuring Raphael Saadiq).

Mario

D.N.A. |

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R&B

Although hitting No. 2 on Billboard's R&B chart, "Break Up," the hip-hoppish first single off Mario's fourth album, is pretty easy to get over. That doesn't bode well for the rest of D.N.A., which, despite elements for success (including hitmakers The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Stargate and Sean Garrett), never really puts it all together.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "I Miss My Friend," a Babyface-cowritten ballad

N'dambi

Pink Elephant |

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R&B

Like many a neo-soul sister, N'dambi has clearly worshipped at the altar of Chaka Khan. You can hear it in her sultry, jazzy delivery and Afro-era R&B on her fourth album (and first for the venerable label, Stax Records). Although N'dambi doesn't possess the dynamic range of prime Chaka—who does?—she imbues Pink Elephant with plenty of funk and flair. The highlight is the smooth-grooving opener "L.I.E.," a cleverly spun tale of a double-dealing man who takes the Long Island Expressway back to his wife and kids. Elsewhere, N'dambi—who once sang backup for fellow Dallas native Erykah Badu—displays a raw earthiness on "Can't Hardly Wait," liberally dropping the F-word while venting about a toxic relationship. Meanwhile, on the Southern-flavored "Daisy Chain," she conjures up another old-school soul goddess: Mavis Staples.

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