Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions. Nobody was sensing Mary J. Blige needed a change more than Mary J. Blige. To reinvent her sound, which she says was going “stagnant,” the “No More Drama” singer embarked on a journey to London for a few weeks, locking herself away with some of the hottest British musicians: Disclosure, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy and Sam Smith. The result is The London Sessions, a turning point for an artist who, throughout her 20-plus-year career, has prided herself on being the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Blige, however, doesn’t completely abandon her What’s the 411? roots — she expands them. Here, her usual musical catharsis is, in many ways, at its most intimate, but when Blige gets crunk at the clubs — letting beat-makers du jour turn her into the disco diva we’ve always secretly wanted her to be — it’s especially apparent she’s taking worthwhile risks. “Pick Me Up” taps Naughty Boy for a lounge-y clarinet-adorned dance groove, Craze & Hoax bring in the boom during the spirited “Long Hard Look” and the Rodney Jerkins-produced house anthem “My Love,” though substandard by comparison, also grants Blige welcome vitality. Even when she pours her heart out on big ballad “Not Loving You,” co-penned by Smith, the influence of her time spent abroad is evident. With its simple melody, the piano-led torch song is like hearing Mary J. Blige sing for the first time.
Carrie Underwood, Greatest Hits: Decade #1. Like most American Idol grads, Carrie Underwood was so painfully play-it-safe in the days after her 2005 victory that someone, be it Jesus or not, needed to take that wheel. Whether it was the Man Above or a label head or simply the pressure from the more-musically-fearless Miranda Lambert, mawkish songs about Him, patriotism and her mom would, thankfully, lessen. There would be more grit. More cheatin’ tunes. And most importantly, there would be an evolution. The two-disc, 25-track Greatest Hits: Decade #1 chronicles Underwood’s trajectory from Idol on, as the vanilla girl with a voice turned into a singing superstar with staying power. One of two new tunes, “Something in the Water,” for instance, is in the vein of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” — both are contemporary Christian songs about healing — but its production is more Kings of Leon than Rascal Flatts. On “Little Toy Gun,” a rhythmic drum punch and fiery vocals set the scene for a domestic abuse narrative, which emphasizes an edge Underwood’s really only revealed since 2012’s Blown Away, her creative breakthrough. Playing against type, bad-girl kiss-off “Before He Cheats,” also included on the set, still reigns as one of her best singles. And a career pinnacle — singing “How Great Thou Art” live with Vince Gill in 2011 — soars all the way to the heavens. If Underwood continues down this road, challenging herself not just vocally but also artistically, Decade #2 won’t need any other hands on the wheel but her own.
Calvin Harris, Motion. Nu-disco wasn’t the same when Calvin Harris and Rihanna brought “We Found Love” into our lives. But on his fourth studio album, Motion, the DJ’s throw-downs need to find more than love — they need to find originality. Squandering his proven knack for original electro-pop is a derivative array of Zumba-made EDM, like “Open Wide,” featuring Big Sean innuendo. Harris’ collaboration with HAIM on “Pray to God” invigorates, as do a few other songs (see “Ecstasy”), but for the most part, Motion is in one very hopeless place.
— Chris Azzopardi