Phillip Phillips, The World From the Side of the Moon (Interscope) * * *
Last May, Phillip Phillips won the 11th season of American Idol and even if he’s another entry in Idol’s growing list of Twitter hashtag #WGWG winners — that’s White Guys With Guitars — he’s helped keep the franchise far out front of the TV competition in terms of generating relevant talent.
Phillips, 22, follows last year’s champ, Scotty McCreery, who scored platinum in the country field. P-squared could go further. The low-key folkie has already scored the most popular — and best — Top 40 single to come from the Idol camp in years with the infectious double-platinum Home, a campfire tune writ large that soared after its use during the London Summer Olympics broadcast of the U.S. female gymnastics team. When was the last time an Idol winner’s coronation song became a legitimate radio and retail hit and a genuinely good song? Try never.
There’s plenty more where Home came from on his like-minded debut album. Phillips’ gruff, stiff Georgia drawl and fast-strummed acoustic anthems plug right into the au courant acoustic folk wave led by Mumford & Sons, Jason Mraz and the evergreen Dave Matthews.
Phillips doesn’t distinguish himself too much from his predecessors but his music, like the stomping acoustic arena anthem, Gone, Gone, Gone, or the surprisingly funky horn-fueled Get Up, Get Down, is just as memorable and immediate.
Download: Home; Gone, Gone, Gone; Get Up, Get Down.
Rihanna, Unapologetic (Island/Def Jam)* * 1/2
It’s almost impossible to separate Rihanna, the person, from Rihanna, the hit-making machine behind inescapable pop hits like Umbrella, Only Girl (In the World), We Found Love and any number of smashes that her seventh album in seven years stands poised to unleash into 2013. This set’s first single, Diamonds, already hit No. 1 on The Billboard Hot 100.
Musically, Unapologetic is better than it has any right to be given her breathlessly prolific pace. Rihanna, 24, along with contemporary producers and songwriters like David Guetta, crafts moody pop, R&B and bass-heavy dubstep tunes that leave a sizable sonic fingerprint. Her vocals on the power ballad What Now are some of the most powerful of her career.
But Unapologetic leaves an unsettled, false and sour taste when you delve behind the catchy beats and sturdy hooks. Rihanna and Chris Brown, the man who savagely beat her, try to sound like a modern-day Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell on their perky Michael Jackson-sampling duet, Nobody’s Business. (Read the 2009 police report that details the harrowing beating Rihanna suffered at the hands of Brown before you rush to support him.) Here’s a song that shamelessly courts publicity with the stealth of a heat-seeking missile in which a convicted abuser and the woman he battered swap nauseating lines like “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world” and “Let’s make out in this Lexus.”
On the next cut, Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary, Rihanna adds to the confusion — her own and her listeners’ — by singing, “Felt like love struck me in the night / I prayed that love don’t strike twice.”