Picks and Pans Main: Music

updated 11/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

CRITIC'S CHOICE

Joe Nichols

Old Things New |

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COUNTRY

Drinking songs are a big part of the tradition of country music. In fact, Joe Nichols scored his biggest hit with one: 2005's "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off." He finds more potent inspiration at the bottom of the bottle on Old Things New, one of the year's best country albums. On "Cheaper Than a Shrink," a humorous honky-tonker, Nichols extols the therapeutic benefits of alcohol: "'Bout 18 bucks'll get you four six-packs/ No pouring out your heart to some high-dollar quack." But it's the rehabbed singer's own drinking problem that brings real-life substance to "An Old Friend of Mine," a classic country ballad about giving up booze. On tunes like this and the cozy "This Bed's Too Big," Nichols, with his rich, barrel-deep baritone, sounds like the heir to Johnny Cash.

Orianthi

Believe |

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POP-ROCK

Australia's Orianthi gets her close-up as the electric guitarist playing alongside the King of Pop in Michael Jackson's This Is It. Arriving the same week as the film is her debut album, Believe. As a singer and songwriter, Orianthi doesn't stand out as much as she does as an axwoman. She's a Kelly Clarkson wannabe one moment (the first single, "According to You"), a Sheryl Crow pretender the next ("Believe"). She's best, though, when channeling Lita Ford on hard rockers like "What's It Gonna Be."

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Think Like a Man," a snarling head-banger

Sting

If on a Winter's Night ... |

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SEASONAL

After getting his rock mojo back with the Police reunion, Sting, ever the Renaissance man, shifts to more esoteric pursuits. If on a Winter's Night ..., inspired by the Englishman's favorite season, features traditional music of the British Isles. Like 2006's Songs from the Labyrinth, the disc gives Sting a chance to show off his classical side. This is evocative mood music perfect for chilling out by the fireplace, especially during the holidays (although there are only fleeting references to Christmas). By the time it's all over, though, you may find yourself needing a jolt of the Police's Outlandos d'Amour.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Lullaby for an Anxious Child," a hushed original

Amerie

In Love & War |

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R&B

Amerie's 2005 hit "1 Thing" remains the best Beyoncé song that Beyoncé never did. And the Grammy-nominated singer starts her fourth album with two more songs that are worthy of Sasha Fierce. First—and fiercest—is "Tell Me You Love Me," a funk workout with horns blaring over a swinging groove and Amerie going from cooing like Diana Ross to grunting like James Brown. Then there's "Heard 'Em All," with its percussive jungle beat, more horns darting around and echoes of Cab Calloway. The rest of this disc—especially the slower second half—can't match its opening salvo. But whether she's angry or amorous, rocking or hip-hopping, Amerie scores enough direct hits to win the war.

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