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Aretha Franklin, The Flaming Lips, and Taylor Swift

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Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics

Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics

RCA

File next to: Ann Peebles, Etta James

On this newest collection, Aretha Franklin demonstrates that at 72, she's still one of the best singers going. Kicking off with an orchestral soul take on Etta James' "At Last" and ending with a jazz version of Prince's "Nothing Compares to U," the album includes some traditional diva numbers, like "People," which gets a high-flying vocal take. The biggest surprise — and most original version of any of the album's 10 songs — comes on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version)." It's powered by a disco-thumping beat as Lady Soul wails and testifies. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" adds some orchestra to the disco-era classic and lets the singer breathe plenty of soul power into the vocals. The only Franklin classic that makes the record is "Respect," which is paired with "I'm Every Woman" in another drum-driven take. — L. Kent Wolgamott

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips

With a Little Help from My Fwends

Warner Brothers

File next to: Rutles, Animal Collective

There are '60s music cultists for whom any Beatles cover is a cardinal sin. And there are Flaming Lips detractors who'll declare any Wayne Coyne project to be wrong by design. But the real problem with the band's cover album of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is its snooze factor. This is disappointing considering the guest cast that Coyne assembled to accompany the Flaming Lips' melting psych magic, which is largely delivered in Pepperland style. If Coyne had failed outrageously, as he occasionally did when covering Pink Floyd in 2010, we might remember this covers album. As it is, the women contributors — Miley Cyrus, Phantogram, Tegan and Sara, Grace Potter — provide the only interesting moments. Friends like Foxygen and My Morning Jacket are little more than a bore — as is Wayne, who proves his narcissism by giving us a pedestrian album with an excess of gravitas. — Loring Wirbel

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

1989

Big Machine Records

File next to: Demi Lovato, Foster the People, Sara Bareilles

Critics can usually be depended on to engage in outdated and trivial debates. In Taylor Swift's case, it's currently all about why she abandoned country, even though she hasn't embraced the genre in years. Two interesting questions are more pertinent to 1989: whether she can transcend the j'accuse heartbreak lyricism of past albums, and whether her self-described new school of hybrid pop is in fact unique. 1989 takes giant strides in moving Swift away from boyfriend blame, though it can steer her to paths both clever ("Blank Space") and occasionally silly ("Shake It Off"). As for this new genre, it's an '80s synth-dance style, with a little Foster the People, fun., or MGMT mixed in. Look, Swift is in charge of her own career, but can we mix in a touch of the former Taylor we all knew and loved? — Loring Wirbel

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