Vanessa Carlton Harmonium (A&M)
Like labelmate Suzanne Vega, Vanessa Carlton has a knack for setting her deepest emotions to craftily hewn melodies in such a way as to infect the listener with the actual feelings. A remarkable feat for a 24-year-old who's made but two albums, but Carlton's Harmonium sounds ageless and timeless nonetheless. There's a depth here, both lyrically and instrumentally, and with regard to arrangement, that creates a far greater sense of urgency and maturity in Carlton's latest batch of songs than in the previous bunch, including her breakout hit, “A Thousand Miles.” To ignore this record would be criminal.
Eminem Encore (Interscope)
Once again, Mr. Mathers has a bunch of emotional baggage courtesy of his purported childhood to unload, and he does so, once again, under the tutelage of Dr. Dre. Problem is, Encore is a decidedly weak, unimaginative record compared to Em's previous work, none of which was as groundbreaking as it was trendsetting and controversial to begin with. The beats on Encore are spare and bleak, the rhymes are a patchwork of monotony and boredom and the lyrics consist of the same tired “mom's-a-bitch/dad's-a-dick” tripe that's begun to define Eminem as the most predictable rap artist of the decade.
Ani DiFranco Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe)
Christ, lady! Take a break already. Fourteen studio albums in as many years is commendable, but the effort is rendered virtually pointless when the latter half of them sound pretty much exactly the same. I understand that you're a talented, prolific songwriter, but I wish you'd stop approaching each new record like a factory worker stamping auto body parts out of an endless supply of sheet metal. I like and respect you. I've reviewed nearly every record you've made. But this'll have to be the last one if you insist on rushing your craft. This isn't a race.