Hear Me Out: Ariana Grande, Ryan Adams

Chris Azzopardi

Ariana Grande, 'My Everything'
Ariana Grande doesn't wanna be your "next Mariah Carey." Shattering the classic-Carey image she somehow became known for (aside from a honeyed coo here and there, I still don't get the comparison), Grande's likable-if-weightless sophomore album, "My Everything," signals her transition from buzz-worthy Disney wonder to major mainstream mainstay. A sizable entourage of radio fixtures riding shotgun doesn't hurt. With Iggy Azalea, Big Sean and, on the deluxe edition, Nicki Minaj (who, alongside Jessie J, works "Bang Bang" into a bad-girl vocal orgy) helping to turn Grande into a bona fide pop princess, the singer sheds her vanilla wholesomeness – though she knows you love the way she grooves a slowie. The Ryan Tedder-produced power-ballad "Why Try," the piano-led "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart" and the tender title track fill that quota, but the slick bounce bait on "My Everything" aims for mass appeal. Paying tribute to the divas who came before her, a sample of Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" on "Break Your Heart Back" is as fun as it is unnecessary. It's an issue Grande contends with herself. Having written very little of "My Everything," what exactly does the 21-year-old bring to music besides runs? Not that there's anything wrong with the fluttery "Love Me Harder" or the sprightly "One Last Time" – and the R&B-influenced "Be My Baby" serves '90s Brandy-esque awesomeness – but I still don't know Ariana beyond her better-than-average pipes. She's a product without any character. A ponytail with a voice. Grade: C+

Ryan Adams, 'Ryan Adams'
As if he's never felt more like himself, Ryan Adams goes the self-titled route for his 14th solo album. Kicking up the mellowness of his 2011 release "Ashes & Fire," a folksy detour that played it safe, he cuts into the alt-rock edge of his earliest recordings for "Ryan Adams," a galvanized body that finds glorious middle ground between his cornerstones: rock 'n' roll and alt-country. "Gimme Something Good" could start a fire; its electric guitar sizzles burning through an Eagles-inspired sound, it dances in the flames, and then fumes at the chorus – a chorus that'd make for a happy Don Henley. "I Just Might" is a gnarled rocker with more of that late-'80s influence, and on it, Adams sounds invigorated. And with shimmering guitars and an easy-to-like sentiment of perseverance, "Tired of Giving Up" is classic Ryan. Earnestly expressing that he's "tired of fighting" and "I don't understand it all," Adams' blunt sincerity continues to be an endearing quality – it's what makes the guy such a dynamic musical force, too. The middling music on "Ashes & Fire" didn't do much to underpin these heart-sleeved musings, but this time, he's on his game. He's hitting a stride he hasn't hit in years. Every song, from "Gimme Something Good" through the vulnerable heartbreaker "Wrecking Ball" and album coda "Let Go," is first-rate. It's hard not to think that Adams' 15-year solo career was leading up to this – an album so good, so "Ryan Adams," it's no wonder it's named after him. Grade: A-

Also Out

Counting Crows, 'Somewhere Under Wonderland'
The casual drawl of Adam Duritz, dreadlocked Counting Crows front man, is so distinct that it's more than a voice – it's the sound of an era. More specifically, the '90s, when the Crows were perched atop the pop-rock zeitgeist. One of the band's strongest outings since their heyday, the nostalgic "Somewhere Under Wonderland" is a Southern-influenced doozy that bursts at the seams of its heart. As the poetically wistful "Possibility Days" closes out "Wonderland," all those emotions you felt the first time you heard "A Long December" resurface like they never even left.

Maroon 5, 'V'
By now, you know what to expect from Adam Levine's band, Maroon 5: trend-grabby pop anthems as infectious as Ebola and as forgettable as… wait, what was I saying? "V" is frustratingly derivative but also more experimental than anything since the band's coastal Cali-rock debut. It's empty-calorie ear candy. But luckily, Levine and co.'s artificiality comes with a few inspired moments, like a pared down piano ballad where Levine and Gwen Stefani deliver heartbroken realness.