Picks and Pans Main: Music

updated 10/05/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/05/2009 01:00AM

Pearl Jam

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

ROCK

Eighteen years after the major-label machine helped turn them into grunge gods with their now-classic debut, Ten, Pearl Jam has cut out the middleman for their ninth studio album. Not coincidentally, the self-released Backspacer finds the veteran rockers recapturing some of the raw edge and energy of a hungry young band selling CDs out of the trunk. Indeed, some of these songs sound as if they could have been recorded in a garage, and 11 tracks race by in less than 37 minutes, giving the album an unfussed-over feel that is true to the indie spirit. But while playing it fast and furious on cuts like "Supersonic," there are also mellower moments like "Just Breathe"—a tender, folky ballad that could be an outtake from Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack—that hit the melodic sweet spot.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "The Fixer," a restorative rocker

Barbra Streisand

Love Is the Answer |

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JAZZ-POP

An album of jazz and pop standards is pretty, well, standard these days. If you're only going to buy one such disc in 2009, though, this should be it. Barbra Streisand, her voice still like buttah, makes this one something special. Love Is the Answer, produced by Diana Krall, provides lush, intimate settings for Streisand to inhabit with all of her interpretive powers and technical perfectionism. The CD takes its title from a line in "Make Someone Happy," glowingly rendered here. But it's the diva's dramatic reading of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" that will really blow you away.

Patty Loveless

Mountain Soul II |

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COUNTRY

After lovingly covering country classics on last year's Sleepless Nights, Patty Loveless continues to explore traditional territory on this sequel to 2001's Mountain Soul. Venturing into bluegrass, Appalachian and old-time gospel sounds, the disc has a rootsy authenticity, with production by Loveless's husband, Emory Gordy Jr., and guest appearances by Del McCoury, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris. Best is the aching ballad "You Burned the Bridge," a contemporary tune with an old soul.

Sean Kingston

Tomorrow |

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REGGAE-POP

Summer may have faded away, but Sean Kingston keeps up the sunny vibes on his second album. Just soak up the rays of tunes like "Face Drop," one of the bounciest breakup songs you'll hear, and the Wyclef Jean-assisted "Ice Cream Girl." But his lightweight reggae-pop wears thin over an entire CD.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Fire Burning," the hit dance-floor scorcher

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