The Big Music Machine is pulling out the big guns this week. Superstars only -- indie upstarts need not apply. Kings of Leon preach the glory of rock 'n' roll, Taylor Swift shares some more pages from her diary, Elton John gives props to his hero, Sugarland has an '80s flashback, and Shakira is a hot, bilingual eclectic mess. And that's a good thing.
PLAY: Kings of Leon, "Come Around Sundown"
There's no turning back for Kings of Leon. Anything less than full rock 'n' roll domination would be considered a failure after their 2008 breakthrough, "Come by the Night." And let there be no doubt, the Followill family is up for the challenge. "Come Around Sundown" is a rare thing these days: a real rock record full of sweat, bravado, and big dreams. And Kings of Leon are an even more endangered species -- a rock band that matters. Stay tuned for the revolution.
SKIP: Taylor Swift, "Speak Now"
It's hard to say anything negative about a hugely popular, multi-platinum artist without sounding stubbornly contrarian or like a dude with a mouthful of sour grapes. Still, I'm done with Taylor Swift's diary. It's full of cliches and puppy dog/moonbeam tales. Maybe her writing will get deeper in a few years. Until then, I'd rather read my old high school yearbook inscriptions. Hey, whatever happened to Jodi Reed? She wrote some great poetry.
PLAY: Elton John & Leon Russell, "The Union"
Once upon a time in the '70s, a young Elton John was the opening act for his hero, Leon Russell, a respected player with a loyal but small following. In the 40 years since, Russell's opening act became a bigger star than he could ever have hoped. Now Elton wants to share some of the spotlight with his hero. It's a big win for Russell, but it's perhaps a bigger win for Elton John, who has spent much of the last two decades lost in the land of schmaltz. Leon Russell's Oklahoma cool and barroom sensibilities have rubbed off on the piano man. The result is one of the best recordings Elton John has delivered since . . . his days opening for Leon Russell.
PLAY: Shakira, "Sale el Sol"
Ignore the Silly Bandz Shakira wears on the cover of "Sale el Sol." This is no bid for tween fans. Shakira has always been crazysexycool, but this time she brings it down a notch from the oversexed electro-pop of "She Wolf." "Sale el Sol" is a bilingual grab bag of hip-hop, merengue, and Latin romance that's sexy, fun, and, dare I say, a bit more grownup.
PLAY: Sugarland, "The Incredible Machine"
There are some albums you dig despite yourself -- that copy of "Rio," the "Footloose" soundtrack, or those early '80s synth power ballad records sitting in your closet. Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush undoubtedly are keeping those same records in their collections too. They're also not afraid to use them for inspiration, as they push country pop out of its comfort zone. The result is an album every bit as commercial as those '80s hits -- and every bit as guilty a pleasure. Sugarland has brought back the '80s with a twang.