Picks and Pans Main: Music

updated 11/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Mayer

Battle Studies |

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POP

It's hard not to think of John Mayer's well-publicized love life when you listen to this follow-up to 2006's Grammy-winning Continuum. In particular, his on-again, off-again relationship with Jennifer Aniston, which ended last March, hangs over more than a few battle-scarred songs—from "Heartbreak Warfare," the deceptively tranquil opener, to "Friends, Lovers or Nothing," the blues-tinged closer. Elsewhere, "Assassin," with its soulful shades of '70s Hall & Oates, seems to play on Mayer's image as a lady killer: "You get in, you get done and then you get gone," he sings with understated cool. But he saves his smoothest moves for "Perfectly Lonely," on which Mayer happily embraces the single life, calling it "a simple little kind of free."

50 Cent

Before I Self Destruct |

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RAP

"I'm supposed to hold a gun, not be stuck in the office," spits 50 Cent, who's gone from a gangsta rapper famous for getting shot nine times to a hip-hop mogul with a record label, a clothing line and a stake in Vitamin Water. But on his fourth solo album, Fiddy seems determined to prove he's still hardcore on street bangers like "Death to My Enemies," one of three tracks reteaming him with producer Dr. Dre, and "Gangsta's Delight," which riffs on the '79 classic "Rapper's Delight." Even in the corner office, there still lurks the corner hustler.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Get It Hot," a club scorcher

Jay Sean

All or Nothing |

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R&B-POP

Riding the wave of his recent No. 1 single "Down"—a pulsating dance groove featuring Lil Wayne—London's Jay Sean hits Stateside shores with his U.S. debut album. And while there's nothing else here as irresistible as "Down," there are other R&B-pop charmers showcasing Sean's silky, Ne-Yo-esque vocals. Too bad he gets dragged down by all the slow stuff, though.

Shakira

She Wolf |

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DANCE-POP

Apparently the she-wolf in Shakira's closet wants to be Madonna. On her latest English disc, the Colombian pop star unleashes her inner dance diva, giving herself—and fans—plenty to keep the hips gyrating. Helping Shakira shake things up are the Neptunes (who produced six tracks, including the percolating, Middle Eastern-flavored "Why Wait"), Timbaland and Wyclef Jean. But some of the electronic vocal manipulation feels worthier of Britney Spears, while the hip-hop posturing can be wack. She ditches all that, though, for the folky highlight "Gypsy."

Dashboard Confessional

Alter the Ending |

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ALT-ROCK

Chris Carrabba's emo outfit gets a punchy revamp with new producer Butch Walker (Pink, Katy Perry) and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger serving as coproducer. Kicking up the guitar crunch and the drum thump adds more muscle to all the melancholy.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Blame It on the Changes," an atmospheric ballad

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