Picks and Pans Main: Music

updated 12/21/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

Alicia Keys

The Element of Freedom |

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  


Despite what she sang so powerfully on 2007's As I Am, Alicia Keys isn't superwoman. But since we've grown to expect super artistic feats from the singer-pianist after her first three studio albums—and 12 Grammys—her latest comes as a bit of a disappointment. It's good, but she can do better. Freedom finds Keys repeating some elements of past songs. Not one but two tunes—"Distance and Time" and "How It Feels to Fly"—blatantly resemble her hit "Like You'll Never See Me Again" (which in turn echoed Prince's "Purple Rain"). But when she hits her stride on ballads like "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart," another Princely gem, Keys is still a major force to be reckoned with.


Timbaland Presents Shock Value II |

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  


Rather than waiting around for his most important client, Justin Timberlake, to make another album, producer Timbaland is getting busy with a sequel to 2007's Shock Value. It's another all-star party, with Tim presiding over guests from the worlds of pop (Katy Perry), rock (Nickelback's Chad Kroeger) and hip-hop (Drake). Timbaland handles more of the vocals here, which isn't always a good thing, but still is happy to share the mic with old friends like Nelly Furtado and new ones like Miley Cyrus (on the teen-spirited "We Belong to the Music"). Timberlake shows up on "Carry Out," a percussive groove that is both exotic and erotic.

Thirty Seconds to Mars

This Is War|

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  


Former My So-Called Life heartthrob Jared Leto earned his rock-star cred with his band's last blastoff, 2005's platinum A Beautiful Lie. He continues to distance himself from Jordan Catalano on This Is War, which, with goth and grandeur, displays shades of My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Kings and Queens," the anthemic, atmospheric first single

Robin Thicke

Sex Therapy: The Session |

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  


Taking a titular cue from Marvin Gaye, his most obvious hero, Robin Thicke promises sexual healing on his fourth album. And like a master tantra instructor, he delivers. On the title-track highlight, a Prince-style seduction right down to the toe-curling falsetto, he sings, "It's your body, we'll go hard if you want to . . . soft as you want to." Thicke goes a little harder than he did on 2008's Something Else, adding some hip-hop swagger with rappers like Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg. But no worries, ladies: He remains at heart a tender lover.


From Our Partners