Album: Pocketful of Sunshine (Epic)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Imagine a classroom filled with today's female pop stars. Pink and Avril Lavigne are carving f-bombs into their desks. Rihanna is texting the high school quarterback. And Natasha Bedingfield? She's drawing rainbows in her Trapper Keeper.
Why we like it: The 26-year-old Londoner scored a major hit with 2005's Unwritten. Here she uses the same harmless formula of breezy guitars, electric beats and lyrics as sturdy as dandelion crowns: "Got a pocketful of sunshine / I got a love and I know that it's all mine." She tries to grit things up by bringing Sean Kingston onto Love Like This, but there'll be no spin-the-bottle at this slumber party.
Reminds us of: Slurpee-induced brain freeze
Download these: Happy and Love Like This
Album: Jukebox (Matador)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall, is an indie rocker who breaks down her songs (and herself) into raw, scratchy shards of revelation. On this sequel to 2000's Covers Album (on which she reworks a shattering Sea of Love, all lonely guitars and distant drums), the 36-year-old tackles such heroes as Bob Dylan and Hank Williams.
Why we like it: Perhaps drawn to Dylan's shrouded mystique, Cat Power's interpretations of His Bobness have particular resonance. For last year's I'm Not There soundtrack, she was Stuck Inside of Mobile. Here she proudly sings I Believe in You.
Reminds us of: Vegas, 3 a.m.
Download these: Ramblin' (Wo)man and I Believe in You
Album: Oracular Spectacular (Columbia)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Pronounced with a straight face as "Management," MGMT is a trippy Ibiza-inspired duo who sings about all the models and drugs they're gonna score once they're famous. Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser aren't as clever or cool as they think they are, but there are worse things to dance to under a full moon.
Why we like it: The album is produced by Flaming Lips overlord David Fridmann, a free-thinking fellow who unloads a George Lucas-style arsenal of cool FX to make it sound like MGMT is gamboling through the spacey innards of a disco ball.
Reminds us of: Hey, what's in these brownies?
Download this: Time to Pretend
SONG OF THE WEEK
Song: Takin' Off This Pain
In stores: iTunes
Why we care: This could be a wild, woolly year for country music. With Miranda Lambert freeing up the wild gals, and Little Big Town urging experimentation in songwriting (and Carrie Underwood's blah latest underperforming), Nashville could very well take a tougher, edgier direction. If all goes well, spitfire Shepherd will have a part in that movement.
Why we like it: "I've got this cold beer in my right hand / In my left I've got my wedding band . . ." Guess which one she'd rather hurl in the trash? With a whole lot of yelp and twang, this 21-year-old from Coffeeville, Ala., is more Natalie Maines than Faith Hill. She's not as polished as her peers, and that's refreshing.
Reminds us of: Whatever happened to Terri Clark? She was another take-no-guff cowgirl.
Song grade: B+