Melissa Etheridge, 'This Is M.E.'
Since going indie, Melissa Etheridge must be feeling as free as when she first came out gay two decades ago. Throughout the punny, super-charged "This Is M.E.," the loose feels of liberation are ever-present as the lesbian icon gets her feet wet in foreign waters (2010's "Fearless Love" suggested experimental restlessness). But when you team up with Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis, producer of the Fugees, and RoccStar, who's laid down tracks for Usher and Chris Brown, you don't get straight-up rock 'n' roll; you get smatterings of R&B and soul. Considering this is the same scorned woman who bit into "Bring Me Some Water," a song like "A Little Hard Hearted," with its full-on sing-along pop hook, is initially jarring. A few listens later and you've got that thing on replay. Then there's the flirty, seemingly autobiographical "Take My Number," which rumbles with the rock-lite flair of her commercial '90s-era zenith. Come chorus, a catchy "drink / think" rhyme makes it so convincing, so irresistible, you won't be able to help yourself – you'd better take that number. With vexed kiss-off "Ain't That Bad" and the soaring Wonda-influenced "Monster," and even the raging "Stranger Road," Etheridge maintains her essence, but she's also wearing many different hats. They don't always fit – the rambling "Who Are You Waiting For" is Melissa's faltering attempt at a mushy power ballad – but sometimes finding the right one takes a few tries. Grade: B-
Lee Ann Womack, 'The Way I'm Livin"
Lee Ann Womack's mega-ballad "I Hope You Dance," your mom's favorite song, and the sleek crossover LP "Something Worth Leaving Behind" thrust her into the mainstream, but, at heart, Lee Ann Womack was always more of a country girl. Reveling in the traditional Southern sounds she'd eventually pursue, the Grammy winner's first album in seven years – a grower – is a roots-based disc centered on down-hominess, heartbreak and devil worship. Most reminiscent of her pop-country phase, "Same Kind of Different" imparts a ties-that-bind sentiment as its a cappella opening eases into a drum-driven, fiddle-strung ditty. "The Way I'm Livin'," the title track, leans closer to the deep Texan twang of ominous, snake-slitherin' badassery. "If I ever get to heaven, it's a doggone shame," Womack sings, sounding as fiery as the flames she's dancing in. "Don't Listen to the Wind" sends a simple guitar into a tornado of sonic madness. It's a satisfying adrenaline rush. Womack, who's even better at fragile laments, could dry out a drenched towel with piano tearjerker "Send It on Down," an inspiring ode to getting your shit together. Not every song on "The Way I'm Livin'" reaches that caliber of melody and poignancy, but the album's still like having a devil on your back. Some of it's just so hard to shake. Grade: B
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, 'Cheek to Cheek'
After the dire non-success of Lady Gaga's "ARTPOP," it was time for Mother Monster to take a step back. Arm in arm with Tony Bennett, she does just that on "Cheek to Cheek," harkening back to the old-timey jazz classics of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. It won't do anything to advance Gaga's career, and the 88-year-old Bennett's legendary status is obviously already well established, but there are moments of undeniable sweetness on an otherwise dull venture, where the sole purpose seems to be bridging the gap between gays and grandpas.
Lucinda Williams, 'Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone'
In a singles-driven industry with less interest in the full-album format, it's ambitious of Lucinda Williams to release two of them at the same time. The alt-country icon's 11th outing, a music purist's dream, is a double-disc set steeped in Williams' signature line-blurring. From country to blues and folk and rock, "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone" encompasses it all. Its biggest feat: never feeling as long as its actual runtime. With music this powerful, even 103 minutes is too short.