- - Monday, October 24, 2011

Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay

Parlophone

★★★

Coldplay first worked with Brian Eno on 2008’s “Viva la Vida,” enlisting the avant-garde producer to add some trippy, artsy weirdness to the band’s pop anthems. The partnership continues with “Mylo Xyloto,” a record that purports to be even weirder than its predecessor - it’s a concept album about lovers living in a futuristic dystopia, after all - but only occasionally breaks the Coldplay mold.

Some things never change. Doing what they’ve always done best, the guys fill the album with Technicolor rock songs about love and perseverance, setting the whole thing to a sweeping soundtrack of chiming guitars, gauzy synthesizers and “woah-oh” vocal refrains. Chris Martin pitches his melodies toward the top of his range, flipping into his falsetto during the climactic choruses, and Mr. Eno pipes in some swirling keyboard effects whenever things get a little too familiar, adding ambience to an otherwise straightforward sound.

If there’s one thing that separates “Mylo Xyloto” from Coldplay’s previous records, it’s the degree to which Mr. Martin and company firmly embrace Top 40 pop music. Long before Rihanna makes an appearance on Track 10, the album has already dished out a handful of genuinely danceable songs, trading the cerebral music of Coldplay’s past for brightly colored club bangers like “Hurts Like Heaven” and “Major Minus.” By the time Rihannadoes show up, the guys are more than willing to delve into ultramodern electro-pop.

As it turns out, the Rihanna duet is the worst song on the album, indicating that Coldplay’s strengths are better suited to the arena than the dance club. Still, it’s fun to hear the guys stretch their wings.

Stronger

Kelly Clarkson

RCA Records

★★★

When we last heard from Kelly Clarkson, she was returning to the top of the charts with “All I Ever Wanted,” a pop album whose big, sparkly hooks were engineered to placate anyone displeased with the brooding rock songs that filled her previous release, “My December.” “Stronger,” her newest album, splits the difference, pitting power ballads and big budget pop songs against a handful of rockers.

Miss Clarkson has always been one of the most outspoken stars to emerge from the “American Idol” machine, unafraid to wage a public battle with her record label if it helps her retain more artistic control. Rather than steer her own ship on “Stronger,” though, she lets a long list of producers take the wheel. There are 15 producers here - more producers than songs, in fact - and they’re the ones truly responsible for the album’s diversity, whether they’re slathering “Dark Side” with ambient electronics or polishing “I Forgive You” into this album’s “Since U Been Gone.”

Her creative team may be calling the shots, but Miss Clarkson still sings these songs like a rebel, channeling the soulful belt of Christina Aguilera one minute and the gritty growl of Ann Wilson the next. No one sounds quite like her, and it’s testament to the power of her voice that she’s rarely overshadowed by the multitude of producers and engineers working behind the scenes.

“Honestly,” a melancholic ballad that would turn to schmaltz in the hands of a less capable singer, shows the full range of Miss Clarkson’s vocals, running the gamut from breathy low notes to a skyscraper descant. Like an actor who plays multiple characters during the same production, she slips into various guises throughout the rest of the tracklist: a pop star on “Mr. Know It All,” a rocker on “I Forgive You” and a diva scorned on “You Love Me,” which may be the catchiest tune here. She’s thoroughly convincing in each role, proof that it’ll take more than a mixed bag of producers to push this American Idol off her pedestal.

A Very She & Him Christmas

She & Him

Merge

★★½

With a mix of retro-hip charm and cheeky cheesiness, She & Him tackle 12 holiday favorites on this Christmas album, which recalls similar holiday offerings from the Carpenters and the Beach Boys.

For the most part, “A Very She & Him Christmas” is a predictable affair, mixing familiar classics like “Sleigh Ride” with slapback echo, heavy reverb and other studio tricks that recall the 1960s. The highlights arrive whenever the band goes off-course. “Silver Bells” is performed as a sparse ukulele ballad, and She & Him jazz up “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by flipping the usual male/female roles, a move that turns Zooey Deschanel into the confident seductress and M. Ward into the reluctant seductee.