No one can replace Madonna. We get it. And should we not, the queen of pop’s latest electro-romp and eighth No. 1-charting album, “MDNA,” reminds us that, despite other “reductive”-sounding acts, she’s still… well, the queen. She brags with desperate swagger about being the best on “Some Girls,” presumably defending more than her bad romance with other chicks, and gets some kiss-ass from collaborator Nicki Minaj, who basically waxes her ego’s ego. If only the songs, from pretty pathetic radio-baiters to thrilling pop-art provocation, more successfully reinforced this claim that Madonna, at 53, is still knocking ’em dead. She pushes hard – much harder than she did on 2008’s phoned-in “Hard Candy” – but the ear-sores are still abundant on the tacky pompom cheer “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” ridiculous not only for its tween-leaning silliness but Madonna’s vexing desperation to be a girl, and sacrilegious William Orbit-produced “I’m a Sinner” that, while cheeky in tone, is obvious to the point of boredom. Where she triumphs are the confessionals: “I Don’t Give A,” coolly delivered in faux-rap, doesn’t just bare her usual candidness but shares the nitty-gritty diary dirt on her divorce from Guy Ritchie; resurrecting the ABBA groove of “Hung Up” with a cool acoustic frame, “Love Spent” is a telling rumination of a flat-lining relationship. Of the two ballads, it’s the vulnerable and bereft “Falling Free” – again, suggestive of Ritchie – that sounds beautiful enough to have been a “Ray of Light” outtake (“Masterpiece” is drab throwback balladry that’s nothing to remember). The quiet introspection is offset by moments of suckering pop bliss, “Turn Up the Radio” (into her groove) and “Superstar” (a grade-school love letter), that cast Madonna as her younger self, trying to fit in with those “girls” rather than standing out from them. Hence the suggestive drug-laced album title, relentless narcissism, resistance to aging, collaborators du jour. But on “Gang Bang,” she shows us who’s boss: her boldest, most balls-out song in years, a bloodthirsty rip into an ex (wonder who that is), is a maniacal murder epic set to cinematic sound-effects of car chases and gun cocks that confirms Madonna – when she’s touting her own brand – isn’t all talk. Grade: B-
Macy Gray, ‘Covered’
Not even a meat dress has anything on her nuttiness, but Macy Gray still can’t seem to claim the fame. Having had a hard go at recapturing her early-2000s success, she takes a different approach, channeling herself through songs – and hilariously in a career-commentary skit with Nicole Scherzinger – that aren’t her own. From a moodier “Here Comes the Rain Again” to poignantly taking on Radiohead’s “Creep,” her surprising selections not only reach outside-the-box to fit her inner freak but sound wonderfully in-sync with Gray’s personality – and her ability to find a fresh twist on some done-to-death tunes. Just having her gruffness in place of Colbie Caillat’s vanilla voice on “Bubbly” practically puts the song in 3D.
‘The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond’
What, exactly, sounds like a dystopia where mere kids fight to the death? It’s hard to say, but T Bone Burnett’s big-name compilation definitely finds the right tone – disturbing, dramatic and achingly sad – to reflect such horror. Working against type, boy-balladeer Taylor Swift sings a quiet hymn – with The Civil Wars – that features her unadorned voice and a rootsy feel, working the haunting melody into sublime Bon Iver territory. “Just a Game,” sung beautifully by Birdy, fittingly borrows “Mad World”; Maroon 5, sounding nothing like Maroon 5, surprises with “Come Away to the Water”; and Miranda Lambert’s group-venture Pistol Annies is country tragedy at its best.
The All-American Rejects, ‘Kids in the Street’
That teen-skewed emo pop? Time to move along, indeed. Indulging further – and harder – in rock, and easily surpassing their jacked-up third disc, “Kids in the Street” aims to redefine the Oklahoma quartet’s juvenile claim to popularity seven years ago, when their “Dirty Little Secret” became ours, too. “Beekeeper’s Daughter” doesn’t hold like past head-hangers, but orchestral flourishes – a new thing for the band – and a cute couplet (“You’re a pretty little flower/I’m a busy little bee”) keep it buzzing. Through the acoustic closer “I For You,” and especially on cool groove “Fast & Slow,” the 13-year-old band makes a pretty convincing argument that they’re grown up, and better for it.