George Michael, ‘Faith (Special Edition)’
When he wasn’t setting his own monkey free, George Michael was singing about it. The single “Monkey” was, and remains, one of the weakest tracks on this classic – but on a 10-song album full of diamonds, it’s like getting a pearl. With the fantastic remaster of “Faith,” the British pop star’s genesis from boy band to sexually liberated solo act, the rerelease of the 1987 watermark shows an artist in bloom, boldly pushing buttons (“I Want Your Sex” would still turn heads today for its unapologetic straight talk) and setting the stage for a legendary career. The timeless hits – “Father Figure,” the title track and one of the best ballads of all time, “One More Try” – are all intact on one disc; the other two, a DVD and another CD, include corresponding music videos and rarities packaged with a hard-bound book of interviews and photos. A very candid, in-depth chat from the late ’80s is the highlight on the DVD; another, “Music, Money, Love, Faith,” is an interesting behind-the-music making of. Both features add perspective to a masterwork that remains not only an era marker, but – even now, 24 years later – one of immaculate pop prowess. (Out Feb. 1) Grade: A
Natasha Bedingfield, ‘Strip Me’
So that pocketful of sunshine might be hurting Natasha Bedingfield more than she thought. She’s stamping smiley faces all over her third U.S. release, sounding like she’s written the soundtrack for a late ’90s chick flick; but her “journey of hope” seems less like an exploration and more like a destination she’s already reached. “Little Too Much” is so cute you can practically see Julia Robert’s pearly whites in it. The reference might seem dated, but everything about “Strip Me” is – from how generic it sounds (even producer Ryan Tedder, with the gimmicky title track, gives Bedingfield the same drumbeat he’s criminally bestowed upon Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson) to how blandly safe it is. Even the elementary lyrics go way back with cliches about playing a lover like a musical instrument – in this case, on “No Mozart,” a piano. What really sours “Strip Me,” though, is the uncharacteristic vocal lunges Bedingfield throws herself into during the disc’s almost-unlistenable last half, particularly on the overreaching ballad “Recover,” where she really wants you to feel what she’s singing – even if she has to scream it to you. Grade: C-
Keri Hilson, ‘No Boys Allowed’
You know something’s up when a song features an “anus/famous” rhyme. The sad part is that said line, courtesy of a Nelly cameo on “Lose Control,” will go down as the most memorable moment of the siren’s second album, a drab follow-up to 2009’s “In a Perfect World.” So much of Hilson’s pop-soul sophomore CD slips through the cracks (sorry, couldn’t help it) that we’re left with a middling album of hookless sonic slop whose only triumphs are the ones with the most attitude.
Regina Spektor, ‘Live in London’
No offense to Regina Spektor, who impresses during her first live release, but the DVD is a mess. Shot in 2009 with what appears to be webcams, it does no justice to this folk-bending talent who is completely absorbing during her set, also available on an accompanying CD. “Samson,” one of her best, is sadder and sweeter live – and you can’t help but love the buoyant bounce of “Folding Chair” – but the real surprise is the unreleased “Love, You’re a Whore,” a cheeky country closer.
Corinne Bailey Rae, ‘The Love EP’
Didn’t see this one coming: the “Put Your Records On” soulstress doing Prince? Yep, Rae gets funky on the sexy “I Wanna be Your Lover” as part of this digital-only release of covers for Valentine’s Day. Her silky-smooth voice works magically, and it’s cool to hear her cut loose just after her very serious “The Sea.” Other tracks on the EP include the haunting rocker “Low Red Moon” and the sweet Paul McCartney & Wings song “My Love.” Put this record on, for sure.