"The Thrill of It All"
Sam Smith is disconsolate, bummed out, broken-hearted and on the verge of tears. In a word: sad. Melancholy is the metier for the British vocalist who won four Grammys for his 2014 debut album, "In the Lonely Hour." And starting with the lead single "Too Good at Goodbyes," "The Thrill of it All" -- an ironic title, it seems -- does not deviate from that sorrowful strategy. The 25-year-old crooner's vocals can come off as too mannered, and to be sure, he's most at home in the middle of the road. But conveying heartache and vulnerability is what Smith excels at, and "Thrill" is for the most part an effective rebound from "Writing's on the Wall," his leaden theme for the 2015 James Bond movie "Spectre" (which won a best song Oscar despite its shortcomings). Occasionally, the tempo does pick up on Smith's sophomore release -- most notably on the most welcome old-school soul nod "Baby You Make Me Crazy." But even then, the singer is bawling over a lost love before the end of first verse. He's most appealing on "Thrill" when earnestly struggling for answers, often with the help of gospel singers, as on the out and proud "Him" and heartfelt, huge-hit-to-be "Pray," in which he scolds himself for his own ignorance and naivete after a recent visit to Iraq. -- Dan DeLuca
Lee Ann Womack
"The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone"
Exiting Nashville's major label system was the best thing ever to happen to Lee Ann Womack's music. The Texas country singer's commercial clout peaked with her wedding song/prom theme mega-hit "I Hope You Dance" in 2000. After 2008's "Call Me Crazy," she took a six-year break before returning to her roots on 2014's terrific "The Way I'm Livin'," released on the bluegrassy Sugar Hill label. Now with indie power player ATO Records, "The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone" continues to dig into that fertile ground, applying her formidable voice to a set of unvarnished country songs produced by her husband, Frank Liddell. The 14-song blue mood piece includes seven she cowrote, covers of George Jones and Harlan Howard, two well-chosen songs by rising country tunesmith Brent Cobb, and the near miraculous feat of making the storied murder ballad "Long Black Veil" sound fresh. And maybe best of all -- along with the black-and-white cover shot of Womack puffing out cigarette smoke -- is Adam Wright and Jay Knowles' title track, which deromanticizes honky-tonk tropes about lonesome trains and walking the floor with a lyric about how heartache songs never get old. -- Dan DeLuca
Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane is on top of the world -- to say nothing of the charts – after a Rimbaud-like season in hell. The Mouth of the South, with his raw-edged but marble-mouthed verbal style had traversed years of trouble with drugs and jail time until spring 2016. Once released from both grips, the menacing Mane not only jumped back into the game with "Everybody's Looking," but moved from being flabby -- literally and figuratively -- into crafting a muscular physique to go with his hard, clearer, and poppier musicality. Now, along with a best-selling book, "The Autobiography of Gucci Mane," and his wedding broadcast live on BET, the newly accessible rapper is that rare thing: a commodity whose artfulness is worth its weight in gold.
With snark and smirking humor on his side, Mane chews through the wonkily produced "Stunting Ain't Nuthin" and the ruggedly R&B-ish "Tone it Down" with gusto. The self-proclaimed "trap god" shows that he's more ruminative than angry with a line like "I was gifted with a talent that was God-given / But I was so hard-headed I would not listen," but that doesn't make Mane soft. "I Get the Bag" and "Miss My Woe" shows a mean angularity that proves Gucci's willingness to keep his hand in the bad guy game. -- A.D. Amorosi
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