Miley Cyrus, Bangerz (RCA) * * *
So what do you do when you’ve twerked a married man on television while singing a song extolling the party-hearty appeal of doing lines in the bathroom and upstaging Robin Thicke, the man behind the year’s biggest — and naughtiest — hit, Blurred Lines? You follow with a naked ride on a wrecking ball and engage in a public spat with Sinead O’Connor after the older star basically branded the former Disney actress a “prostitute” under the guise of a motherly warning.
On Bangerz, her fourth studio album but first as an adult, Cyrus acts like she’s discovered sex and wants to get as much as she can before someone else finds out about this new treat called an orgasm she’s found.
On the hashtag-ready #GETITRIGHT, she taps the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams — who has ruled pop culture this year thanks to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Thicke’s Blurred Lines — to help craft an ode to a booty call. “I feel like I got no panties on/I wish that I could feel ya/Now hurry, hang up that damn phone!” she commands.
Maybe he’s too busy playing with his apps, because on SMS (Bangerz), a duet with Britney Spears, she simply takes satisfaction into her own hands. “They ask me how I keep a man/I keep a battery pack,” she reveals.
Bangerz’s obsessions aren’t all about the horizontal bop, however, and the hip-hop inspired set, while wholly contemporary, sonically adventurous and dark in spots, isn’t particularly fun or transporting the way great pop music can be. Thicke’s surprisingly solid Blurred Lines album has it all over Bangerz in that regard. The catchy 4x4 country-rap hoedown, with its canned accordion and Nelly guest vocal, and the electronic dance-cabaret-jazz mash-up FU, a collaboration with French Montana, are among Bangerz’ best bets in a giddy sense. Conversely, the atonal, lightheaded My Darling, which features Auto-Tuned rapper Future woozily moaning repetitive verses cribbed from Stand by Me, is awful.
What elevates Bangerz to the top of the pile among the season’s major releases is Cyrus’ growth as a vocalist — it recalls Madonna’s transition from helium-voiced kewpie doll of the Lucky Star era to expressive, emotive singer on Like a Prayer forward. Wrecking Ball, the recent No. 1 hit for which Cyrus endured misguided criticism for a video in which she appears nude atop the pendulum of its title, is fantastic — the best single of the fall and vastly superior to the latest offerings from peers Katy Perry ( Roar) and Lady Gaga’s atrocious Applause.
Cyrus’ clear singing on the rock ballad Wrecking Ball, almost unsettling in the throb of emotion, is a revelation as it captures the rawness of a recent breakup and the swirl of anger and disappointment that accompanies a split. The opening mid-tempo ballad, Adore, and the deluxe version bonus track, Rooting for My Baby, also make fine use of Cyrus’ throaty, Southern voice, as does the Kanye West-styled dub-step Drive — which laments the loss of a lover and feels honest. (Cyrus ended an engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth around the time of her infamous MTV VMAs performance.)
Bangerz isn’t all red-hot bangers as Cyrus clearly intended, but when it works it’s as good as contemporary pop gets. When Cyrus sings on Adore, “I just started living,” she offers a tantalizing tease for future albums we can’t wait to hear.
Download: Wrecking Ball, FU, Rooting for My Baby.
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience - 2 of 2 (RCA) * * *
Justin Timberlake is so hip he’s managed to have the year’s best-selling album with The 20/20 Experience despite upending the current fixation on the four-minute, hook-filled pop single. The 20/20 Experience was a beautifully recorded, yet largely hookless, indulgent sprawl of an album with songs that peaked at the three- or four-minute mark and yet stretched onward to interminable eight- and nine-minute lengths.
This fast-arriving sequel, featuring 11 more songs cut during the same sessions, repeats the formula, retaining the glorious, enveloping plush fidelity (download the “Mastered for iTunes” version or import at the higher 256 bit rate) but the songs this time, though similarly structured (read: long) have tempos and hooks. As a whole, the far funkier 20/20 Experience - 2 of 2 has a cohesion and focus — mostly on the carnal — that the first part lacked.
Timberlake’s also been taking cues from Robin Thicke, because 20/20 redux is considerably raunchier than its predecessor. Where 1 of 2 hinted at oral sex on Strawberry Bubblegum, the follow-up gets downright nasty on Murder — a Michael Jackson-equivalent, sexy woman-as-murderess motif — in which guest Jay Z raps about Yoko Ono’s special hold on the late Beatle John Lennon (don’t ask). Timberlake boasts of his loverman skills on Cabaret, a track featuring Drake. “I got you saying Jesus so much it’s like we’re laying in the manger.”
JT purists might yearn for the more refined man who brought Sexy Back in less obvious manner seven years ago, but 20/20 - 2 of 2 is suitably sexy, equally at home on the dance floor, in the bedroom or in the car on the way to a late-night hookup.
Download: Drink You Away, Murder, Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want).
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Kenny Rogers, You Can’t Make Old Friends (Warner Nashville) * * * . The selling-point is the sweet title track, an ode to friendship the country veteran sings with old friend Dolly Parton on the 30th anniversary of their pairing on Islands in the Stream. But Rogers, 75, in fine, distinctive raspy voice, gathers a number of varied songs together for an uncharacteristically strong album highlighted by the rock edge of Turn This World Around and the lively Don’t Leave Me in the Night Time, featuring Buckwheat Zydeco. The gambler scores a winning hand with his best album in decades.
Randy Travis, Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am (Warner Nashville) * * 1/2. The country veteran’s 21st studio album, recorded in November before his life-threatening illnesses, pays homage to songs from the 1920s onward by Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and others. Travis’ voice isn’t at peak but his intentions are honorable and the music is true country.
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