George Strait (MCA Nashville)

Grade: A

George Strait begins his new album with the title song, an up-tempo honky-tonker that finds the impeccably buttoned-down Texan as loose as ever. It’s the first signal that Strait is enjoying a new burst of energy and inspiration in a three-decade career of remarkable artistic consistency and commercial clout.

Another signal that Strait is newly engaged: He has three songwriting credits — his first since his 1981 debut. They include “Living for the Night,” co-written like the others with his son, Bubba, and the kind of smooth country ballad he has long owned. It has already hit the top of the charts.

The Strait originals stack up well in a collection of exceptionally strong material, including the reflective “Where Have I Been All My Life” and the weeper “Beautiful Day for Goodbye.”

— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘man overboard’

Ian Hunter (New West)

Grade: A

Ian Hunter is not merely “still active” at age 70 — the old dude is excelling. In October, the raspy-voiced songwriter extraordinaire will finally front a temporarily reunited Mott the Hoople as the influential if underrated British glam band celebrates its 40th anniversary onstage in London. Meanwhile, the iconic shades-sporting rock-’n’-roll lifer just furthered his solo legacy — begun when Mott splintered in 1974 and Hunter subsequently emigrated to America — with his third strong studio album of this decade.

“Man Overboard,” like 2001’s “Rant” and 2007’s “Shrunken Heads,” showcases Hunter’s enduring ability to marry Dylanesque lyrical detail with laddish blues-rock panache and wry, folkish balladry. Maximizing his most recent hot songwriting streak, it was recorded quickly late last year with Hunter on acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica, fleshed out by his tour-tightened band. The 11 tracks vary from mellower tunes — love songs such as “Way With Words,” even a surprisingly effective American Indian folktale-telling in “The River of Tears” — to evocative rockers such as the swelling, Celtic-flavored “The Great Escape” and disdainful “Babylon Blues.” Besides his pen, Hunter’s best instrument remains his voice.

— David R. Stampone, Philadelphia Inquirer


Dinosaur Jr. (Jagjaguwar)

Grade: C

This, the ninth studio release from American trio Dinosaur Jr., provides a reverb-laden soundtrack recalling the heydays of summer, with all of the grass stains, sunburns and pubescent rites of passage therein implied. Sloppy, wailing guitar crescendos and cavalier frontman J Mascis’ groaning, barely melodic vocals anchor “Farm” to the band’s reliably off-kilter brand of garage rock. Songs like “Over It” and “Friends” are built for cranking up on car stereos, while power ballads such as “Plans” and “Said the People” feel as comfortingly familiar and as inherently nostalgic as August’s end.

— Nayeli Rodriguez, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Stupid Love’

Mindy Smith (Vanguard)

Grade: B

Mindy Smith, whose 2004 debut spawned the country hit “Come to Jesus,” is a model of restraint. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter has a lovely, pure soprano. She ascends to a girlish high register for her soft ballads — it’s no wonder that Alison Krauss has covered her songs — and she roughens it, slightly, for the occasional midtempo, twangy tune. But she never loses her cool. “Stupid Love,” Smith’s fourth album including an excellent Christmas record, is unfailingly pleasant and often beautiful.

Ranging from the sparse, introspective “I’m Disappointed” to the rolling, high-spirited “What Went Wrong” to the soaring, string-kissed “Couldn’t Stand the Rain,” “Stupid Love” is full of well-built songs about the highs and lows of love.

— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer

‘guilty pleasures’

Ashley Tisdale (Warner Bros.)

Grade: D

‘here we go again’

Demi Lovato (Hollywood)

Grade: C

Television host Art Linkletter used to tell audiences that “kids say the darndest things.” At present, kids hardly have anything darned or interesting to talk or sing about — at least, not if we must judge from the sound of tween fan faves Demi Lovato and Ashley Tisdale.

Tisdale, 24, may be the least adored of the “High School Musical” crew. Sob. Still, that doesn’t mean she’s not vying for popularity — she’s just aiming for a slightly older crowd. With un-bubblegum production values and a growl to her voice, Tisdale unleashes her inner Kelly Clarkson on the stadium-rocky role-playing “Masquerade.” The gutsiness is cute. But she muffs it all up by blaming her folks for relationship woes on the balladlike “How Do You Love Someone.”

At 16, Lovato — star of Disney Channel stuff “Camp Rock” and “Sonny With a Chance” — has, surprisingly, a better grasp on adulthood than does Tisdale. Yet the cooing Lovato still acts her age. In tunes such as “Solo” and “Remember December,” she retains the fab-u-lash hooks found in the crisp, frisky power-pop of her debut album, 2008’s “Don’t Forget.” Yet she manages to make overly sensitive co-writers such as John Mayer and Jon McLaughlin sound younger than they have in their entire careers. Gold stars all around.

— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

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