M.I.A. knows what it’s like to be different. Three albums in and the native Sri Lanka digi-punk provocateur’s as trippy and surging as she was when 2008’s “Paper Planes” shot her into superstardom – literally. That smash was fresh, and hip, and every bit deserving of high praise. Now she’s beating innovation into the very ground she once built: more weapons, more power tools – a chainsaw, for instance, that launches the first full track, “Steppin Up,” an oddly muffled mix of ominous synths and kiddie sing-along lyrics. On “XXXO,” a slick pop song, she pulls herself out of the funk muck to play up her block-party appeal, ditching the futuristic clickity-clacks that suffocate so much of the superfluous album. Not a girl, not yet a woman is M.I.A.’s other big flaw – she’s somewhere in between, pushing self-conscious politics between nonsensical “rub-a-dub-dub” noises that contradict all she’s attempting to stand for. Too, songs like “Teqkilla” and “Internet Connection” are ear-tiring repetitious and nails-on-chalkboard grating. She’s cocksure, and that’s fine, but that confidence needs backbone – blind noise, like that of “Born Free,” is as much a punishment for her as it is for us. She finds some grace, thankfully, on refreshingly cleaner cuts, the dreamy “It Iz What It Iz” and the island-swayed “It Takes a Muscle,” but new ideas halt when “Tell Me Why” hits, remolding “Paper Planes” into a chanty stomper. Provocative shouldn’t sound so desperate. Grade: C
Sheryl Crow, ‘100 Miles from Memphis’
After beating cancer and heartbreak, Sheryl Crow’s seriously ready to soak up some sun. And wouldn’t you know it with these 12 tunes, almost all cut from carefree elation and distilled through sweet rhythmic grooves that shadow her debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” Already on the verge of a pop-rock breakup with the experimental, aptly titled “Detours,” released two and a half years before her frothy latest, Crow’s not just dipping her toes in different water now – she’s diving in headfirst. Justin Timberlake joins her on the sexy “Sign Your Name,” one of three covers that comfortably sit among her Southern retro-soul originals, throwbacks to such trailblazers as Al Green, Dusty Springfield and Stevie Wonder. Such newbies include the rollicking opener, “Our Love is Fading,” the sunny “Peaceful Feeling” and the freeing “Long Road Home,” a down-by-the-river clapper. When she changes pace with the slowie “Stop,” the moving ballad finds Crow gloriously reaching into her strained upper register. “Eye to Eye” is vaguely political, reggae-fueled filler that never finds its footing, but her major misstep is a kinda-karaoke homage to Michael Jackson with the closing cover “I Want You Back.” So much of her seventh album is light and lovable, though, that it doesn’t even really matter. Grade: B+
‘Jersey Shore Soundtrack’
If nothing else, this can be said for the trashy TV docu-series’ soundtrack: It does more pounding than its shows’ housemates. And if sex and cocktail chugging came with a music mix, this charged dance-club caboodle represents with 16 tracks, featuring Paul Oakenfold’s “Pump it Up” and two Lil Jon jams. When the electro hipsters of LMFAO demand on “Get Crazy” that you flash your ta-tas, at least you feel like you’re in the right ridiculous place.
Arcade Fire, ‘The Suburbs’
“Neon Bible,” the indie fave’s last album, was bleak and brooding. Continuing to draw on the drama and romanticism of past projects, their latest is remarkably inside out. Sounding looser, hopeful and liberating, songs still play like novelettes with the band’s trademark theatricality intact (some even elect club beats). It’s another opus, ruminating on change, uncertainty and aging with the epic sound that made Arcade Fire so cool in the first place.