Album: Four the Record (Sony Nashville)
Why we care: The 28-year-old Lambert has a quirky twang and an offbeat writing style to match. But the greatest strength of Blake Shelton's boisterous bride has been getting Nashville and its relatively conservative fans to fall in love with this modern-day Annie Oakley, an envelope-pushin' hell-raiser in a skirt.
Why we like it: Lambert opens her latest album with a sweet, feel-good number . . . about a cross-dresser (All Kinds of Kinds). She follows that up with a freaky, fuzz-boxed experiment about hanky-panky (Fine Tune). Take-a-hike first single Baggage Claim is one of the "safer" songs here, but even that one twists and turns normal country conventions with its Lambertian aggression.
Reminds us of: One of 2011's best albums
Download this: Mama's Broken Heart
Album: Stronger (RCA)
Why we care: For being the inaugural winner of TV's most manipulative reality show, Kelly Clarkson is a curiously independent talent, a giant voice in a reclusive shell. She's American Idol's greatest champ (sorry, Carrie fans) but also its most reluctant, perhaps a shy result of all those people obsessed with her weight and sexuality.
Why we like it: Clarkson could sing the ingredients on the back of a bag of Funyuns, and I'd be weeping from the sheer beauty of her voice by the time she got to hydrolyzed soy protein. This isn't her best record — it's too synthy, soulless, especially so-so first single Mr. Know It All — but KC is such a tremendous phraser, she can give even an average grab-bag a certain gravitas.
Reminds us of: Adele sans the writing skills
Download these: You Love Me and What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)
Cider Sky, Bruno Mars
Album: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Chop Shop)
Why we care: For being all-consuming pop-culture vacuums that coldly suck the lifeblood of women both young and oughta-know-better, the Twilight movies have sublime, super-eclectic soundtracks.
Why we like it: Over the course of Edward and Bella's dead-eyed cinematic romance, the series' music has grown increasingly quiet, soft, sexy, from Muse to Thom Yorke and now, in a stronger turn toward the radio dial, Bruno Mars, whose It Will Rain weeper is already a smash. The good stuff is at the LP's end, including tingly, gorgeous work from Cider Sky and Iron & Wine.
Reminds us of: Team Jacob, baby!
Download these: Cider Sky's Northern Lights and Iron & Wine's Flightless Bird, American Mouth (Wedding Version)
Album: Achtung Baby: 20th Anniversary Edition (Island)
Why we care: The greatest U2 album of all time — yes, shut up, no debates about the overrated Joshua Tree — 1991's Achtung Baby gets the 20th anniversary luxe treatment — and we do mean 'luxe. This entails various digital and vinyl derring-do, including a six-CD set with what the band calls "baby" demos of their 1991 masterwork.
Why we like it: And thus began the Dublin Four's great metamorphosis, the Irish lads launching themselves into space and all points abstract, one of rockdom's great reinventions. Or, as Bono put it, "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree."
Reminds us of: Being a junior at Syracuse University and thinking my life was sooo complicated and dramatic and intense. Oy.
Download this: Ultra Violet (Light My Way)