Clare Maguire - Light After Dark (3.5/5). With her solid debut, Light After Dark, British singer Clare Maguire makes a convincing bid to be the next Annie Lennox, her deep, expressive vocals and rich melodies clearly evoking the Eurythmics singer's style. "The Shield and the Sword" and "The Last Dance" open the album with forceful tunes about the end of love, liberally arranged with swirls of strings, piano, synthesizers and drums. "I Surrender" matches her big sound with a modern synth pop dance beat. Makes sense that it works when you remember the album's producer is Fraser T. Smith, the man behind most of the Taio Cruz and Tinchy Stryder hits. Despite having some good songs, there are a couple of key problems with this album. First, its musical arrangements don't vary significantly, so while I'm always up for a nice strings and keyboard tune, they get old after awhile when there's nothing else. Second, the album has a singular focus on being big and bold--rarely are their quiet moments. Coupled together, the album can be exhausting to listen to in long stretches. That said, if you feel like giving up at the halfway point, come back later for the trip-hop leaning "Sweet Lie" and sinister "Ain't Nobody." Best: The Last Dance, The Shield and the Sword, I Surrender, Sweet Lie.
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (3/5). How does a band who had its creative peak in the '80s and its commercial peak in the '90s stay relevant? It's a question that's vexed R.E.M. for the last 15 years. After stumbling through the early '00s, they delivered a pretty decent set in 2008 with the moody rocker Accelerate. On Collapse into Now, they attempt to broaden their sound more. Where Accelerate was lean and focused, Collapse Into Now is all over the place, mining the band's history to explore sounds from their most successful periods. "Discoverer" sounds like '80s R.E.M, "All the Best" like the fuzzier rock of the mid '90s, and "Uberlin" is a close study of the band's 1992 track "Drive." That mandolin that made "Losing My Religion" so memorable? Hear it on heartfelt ballad "Oh My Heart." "Blue" stands out as something different with Stipe's spoken-word segments alternating with Patti Smith's gentle vocal, although I can't say it's a song I particularly like. Although It's fun to hear all these sounds come together on one album, it makes me realize I'd be having even more fun if I was listening to their older LPs instead. Best: Uberlin, Discoverer, Oh My Heart.