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Picks and Pans Main: Music

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Britney Spears


Femme Fatale |

Since her last studio set, 2008’s Circus, Britney Spears‘ dance-pop domain has been conquered by younger divas like Ke$ha, Katy Perry and, of course, Lady Gaga. On Femme Fatale-one of the best start-to-finish albums of her career-Spears pulls out all the stops to reclaim her territory, even if it means cribbing from the competition. Indeed, the top track, the apocalyptic party jam “Till the World Ends,” practically out-Ke$has Ke$ha. (No wonder-the tune was cowritten by the “TiK ToK” singer.) Elsewhere Spears captures Gaga’s downtown sleaziness on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” one of many electro-infused grooves. With hitmakers Dr. Luke and old collaborator Max Martin handling much of the production, Spears hardly makes a wrong move, even closing with one of her finest ballads in “Criminal.”

Panic! At the Disco Vices & Virtues |


While Panic! At the Disco’s signature punctuation mark may be back for Vices & Virtues, they’ve lost two members: guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker. What they haven’t lost, though, is their knack for hook-filled punk-pop. Although not quite reaching the heights of 2008’s Pretty.Odd., singer and multi-instrumentalist Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith carry on without missing a beat on tunes like first single “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” and the exuberant “Ready to Go (Get Me Out of My Mind).” They continue to indulge their flair for the baroque-from the strings on “Trade Mistakes” and the children’s choir on “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met …)” to the accordion and mariachi horns on “Sarah Smiles”-putting the exclamation point on it all.

Mary Mary Something Big |


“Can’t keep it in a box ’cause it just don’t fit/ My God he’s bigger than just music,” proclaims Mary Mary over a jittery hip-hop beat on “Something Bigger.” After winning two Grammys for 2008’s The Sound, sisters Erica and Tina Campbell return with more genre-bending gospel on their sixth album. The title-track opener takes a sample from the Jackson 5 gem “Mama’s Pearl” and breaks into a joyous testimony. Another R&B-flavored tune-“Walking,” the smooth-strutting single-samples Crystal Waters’ 1991 house hit “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” But the a cappella “It Is Well” shows that less can be more.