Much of Souled Out is far more pop-friendly than last year's Sail Out EP (which yielded ''The Worst,'' her first Billboard Hot 100 moment), but Aiko's lush, glowing compositions do take time to reveal themselves. Take ''W.A.Y.S.,'' which opens with a lazily strummed guitar, then welcomes in a distant, ominous drum march. Slowly, everything widens and deepens as Aiko croons like a millennial shaman, ''You have got to lose your mind/Just to find your peace of mind.''
That process repeats itself throughout Souled; the more you give in to tracks like the hypnotic, undulating ''To Love & Die'' and the gently lapping ''Eternal Sunshine,'' the more they take hold. Had Aiko followed the muse she was chasing as a teen, ''The Pressure'' would probably have been turned into a disposable piece of Hot 100 radio bait. Instead, like much of Souled Out, it's an otherworldly neck-snapper — the coolest party soundtrack for a parallel dimension where the future of R&B arrived a long time ago. A-
Best Tracks:''W.A.Y.S.''''The Pressure''
Banks' sonic ambition and willingness to risk alienating a pop audience with Goddess' gloomy, tweaky beats are admirable. (They also make for a great headphone experience.) But ironically, the album's most arresting moment is also its most conventional. ''You Should Know Where I'm Coming From'' has a dead-simple arrangement — just vocals, piano, strings, and drums — that's an ideal setting for her rawly emotional lyrics and strongest melody yet. The other songs may be more fashionable, but this one fits her best. B+
Best Tracks:''Waiting Game''''Drowning''
As a frontman, he's as dynamic and engaging as anybody on rock's main stage right now, and his four-year run as a coach on The Voice has done wonders to de-douchify his persona. But it's much easier to win people over when they can see you; audio alone is a whole different medium. And on V, Levine's song-crafting skills don't live up to his ability to work a crowd.
This is the first Maroon 5 album on which Levine is also the only member of the group credited as a songwriter. (On their 2002 debut, Songs About Jane, still easily the band's best record, nearly every track was a tag-team effort between him and Carmichael.) Here, they've brought in a parade of Hot 100 production titans, including Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, and Shellback, to turn Levine's melodic sketches and reedy tenor into full songs. Despite its pop pedigree, V's hooks are alarmingly unsticky.
The first two tracks, singles ''Maps'' and ''Animals,'' set the stage for what follows: shruggy backbeats and unobtrusive guitar-and-key combos, all in service to Levine's elastic, singsongy upper register. The uptempo numbers can't seem to locate the solidifying agents of past hits like ''One More Night'' and ''Moves Like Jagger''; where those songs were ultrapolished juggernauts, these sound like remixes abandoned mid-twiddle. Things get mildly better when the band slows down for the Bruno Mars-ian soul jam ''Sugar'' and the middle-school-dance power ballad ''Unkiss Me,'' but even those feel simultaneously empty and cluttered.
The best moment on V is undoubtedly the album-closing ''My Heart Is Open,'' a piano-fueled duet with Gwen Stefani (who also happens to be Levine's Voice costar in the upcoming seventh season). The song soars on the back of a lush, Sia-penned melody, recalling last year's equally epic Pink/Nate Ruess matchup, ''Just Give Me a Reason.'' It's a simple, passionate pop pleasure — the kind Maroon 5 used to make. C
Taste is another story. Like Carey, Grande sometimes seems worried that her skill will distract from more important things: how sparkly her lipstick is, say, or how cute she looks shooting missiles from her boobs in the video for the EDM rave-inducer ''Break Free.'' For her second album, My Everything, Grande has picked a set of songs so lyrically bland, sonically inoffensive, and artistically empty that they produce a zero-impact experience—musical vanilla fro-yo poured directly into your ears. It's by no means painful; there are even moments of fun, including the thigh-high-boot swagger of summer smashes ''Problem'' and ''Bang Bang,'' both of which borrow their strut from coheadliners Iggy Azalea and Jessie J with Nicki Minaj, respectively.
On her own, the singer fares best on ballads, such as the swooping aria ''Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.'' But even there, it's hard to spot anything specific to Grande—an ethos that would help her find a niche in the crowd of Top 40 prima donnas. She's got the voice. Now she just needs something to say with it. B-
Best Tracks:''Problem,'' We don't have one with this zippy jam ''just a Little Bit of Your Heart,'' A destined-for-The-CW ballad
Days after the deadly tsunami wiped out the town of Natori on Japan's east coast, rescue teams keep searching for survivors