Carrie Underwood, "Carnival Ride" (Arista Nashville)
Carrie Underwood won "American Idol," and she's become arguably the most successful product of that show. Her multiplatinum 2005 debut, "Some Hearts," made her one of the most successful country artists around, even if she lacked the power of Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles and the brashness of Miranda Lambert.
On her sophomore album, Underwood compensates with assured vocals, strong songs and, most crucially, poise -- an underestimated trait that sells her girl-next-door image. On ballads such as "Get Out of This Town" and "I Know You Won't," Underwood knows to emphasize the convincing concrete details and never to oversell the big moments.
Mark Bright's production occasionally burnishes out the character in her voice, making her sound a little distant and sapping the power from "So Small" and "Just a Dream." But "Carnival Ride" picks up on its second half with "You Won't Find This" and "I Told You So," two solid show-closers that Underwood sings with enough conviction to rival her biggest hits. S.D.
Britney Spears, "Blackout" (Jive)
"Blackout" shouldn't be this good. For years Britney Spears has made more headlines than hits, each outburst a little crazier than the one before, until her behavior stopped being funny and became tragic instead. Her life was a mess, the thinking goes, so her music should be a mess as well. But her first album in four years is certainly not the expected train wreck. Nor is it therapy: Spears addresses her own image briefly on "Piece of Me" and "Why Should I Be Sad?" Thankfully, "Blackout" is more concerned with stripper poles than therapist's couches.
Divorced from its atrocious MTV performance, "Gimme More" becomes a relentless club anthem, its throbbing beats and layered effects churning a slinky momentum. Spears alters her voice throughout the album, and this trick makes "Radar" the catchiest song here, but the practice becomes tiresome and cartoonish after a few tracks. Despite such minor hiccups, however, Spears proves surprisingly adventurous: "Blackout" is crazy, but in a good way. Stephen Deusner
DVD: Bob Mould, "Circle of Friends: Live at the 9:30 Club" (Granary Music)
Guitarist Bob Mould blew minds and eardrums during his '80s heyday with noisy pop-punkers Hüsker Dü. Since then he's come out of the closet, released a number of well-received solo records (though most were mellow affairs) and been DJing around the Washington, D.C., area. At 47, Mould still packs a wallop as a live performer, as this energetic show from the legendary 9:30 Club attests.
Mould plays a mixed bag from his entire career, including highlights such as an extended, furious version of "Chartered Trips," as well as the poppy college radio hits "Could You Be the One?" and "Makes No Difference at All." He sounds revitalized, backed by a tight band that includes Fugazi's Brendan Canty on drums, Richard Morel (Morel) and Jason Narducy (Rockets Over Sweden). A vast majority of the songs are from his solo career, particularly the album "Body of Song," and Mould sounds mature and comfortable in his middle-aged shoes, showing how far he's come since his punk days. But there's still something about his raspy voice and hard-strummed, open-ringing chords that begs for fist pumping. Brent Baldwin
Bob Mould plays a short acoustic set and gives a live interview and DVD screening at the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville Nov. 8.
Raye Smith, "Silently" (Route 5 Records)
Richmond native Raye Smith's vocals are reminiscent of early '80s R&B singers lush, soulful and kissed with the sound of life experience. This comes as no surprise, considering he's shared the stage with the likes of The Commodores, Gerald Levert and Mary Wilson and The Supremes. The album begins on a strong note with a funky remake of the 1972 Chi-Lites hit "Oh Girl," but soon falls into a mundane hum. The production doesn't fully complement Smith's vocal ability, creating a flat album that easily becomes background noise. "Silently" showcases Smith's potential, but lacks the kick needed to make this album a commercial success. Maree Morris
II Face, "2 Faces to Every Story" (Black Russian Music Group)
Miguel "II Face" Martinez is one of Virginia's most promising hip-hop contenders, lyrically flexing with the swagger of a Jay Z. CEO of Virginia Beach's Die Hard Recording Studio, II Face produces, writes his own lyrics and continues to add to a formidable catalog of beats. One might worry if II Face may be spreading himself too thin. The question is answered here by surprisingly respectable production on songs such as "Time Is on My Side," whose layered melodies resemble the more heartfelt Jadakiss jewels. "Act Like That" throws your head back with cautionary tales that don't dull the senses with preaching, while "Parkin' Lot" talks tough with Southern panache and conviction. But II Face professes to be both angel and devil, offering to honor grandmothers in some songs and threatening to kill snitches in others. This could be a marketing ploy, but if II Face makes a strong enough impression with either side, hip-hop lovers may embrace the other in due time. William Ashanti Hobbs