100 Proof

Producers: Frank Liddell, Luke Wooten

Label: 19/BNA

Release Date: Jan. 24

This blonde and bubbly "American Idol" alum makes for an unlikely source of the kind of old-fashioned countrypolitan albums we used to get regularly from Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. (With their polished rock guitars and cutesy down-home wordplay, Pickler's first two studio releases suggested an unwavering commitment to the Carrie Underwood Way.) Yet an old-fashioned countrypolitan album-and a really good one, at that-is exactly what 100 Proof is: Working with Miranda Lambert's longtime producer Frank Liddell, Pickler tones down her once-manic vocal approach in 11 handsome tunes long on fiddle, mandolin and sparkling steel guitar. Pickler even receives a writing credit on six of them, illustrating her mind-set on an album that opens by wondering where Wynette is "when you need her." Other highlights include the appealingly plain-spoken "Stop Cheatin' on Me," the mournful "Long As I Never See You Again" and "Turn On the Radio and Dance," in which Pickler upends the ditzy promise of that title with a vocal performance defined by restraint.-MW

Tim McGraw

Emotional Traffic

Producers: Byron Gallimore, Tim McGraw, Darran Smith

Label: Curb Records

Release Date: Jan. 24

It's been widely publicized that Tim McGraw's latest album, Emotional Traffic, will be the final release from the Curb Records-McGraw partnership. The business aspect of this set has gotten so much ink-so, what about the music? For the final act in this phase of McGraw's career, the country star delivers some aces from up his sleeve. The song "Die by My Own Hand" may be one of the best-written tunes he's ever recorded-on par with 2004's "Live Like You Were Dying." And "The One That Got Away" features one of the top vocal performances of his career. McGraw undergoes some self-examination in the emotional "Better Than I Used to Be," and displays the honky-tonk swagger that's always been evident in his music in the exuberant "Hey Now" and "The One," both of which could be singles down the line. In all, McGraw delivers an extraordinary collection from start to finish. This should come as a surprise to no one, because that's his reputation-and that's one thing artist and label can agree on.-CD


Rodrigo y Gabriela

Area 52

Producer: Peter Asher

Label: ATO Records

Release Date: Jan. 24

Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero (aka Rodrigo y Gabriela) have long been fleet-fingered instrumental spitfires without need of accompaniment to bolster their performances. But on their fourth studio album, Area 52, the guitar-playing Mexican duo shines just as brightly alongside the brassy, 13-piece C.U.B.A., an ensemble of hot young players that Rodrigo y Gabriela and producer Peter Asher enlisted to take on new versions of nine of their tunes. It's a killer collaboration that lends fresh textures and explosive dynamics to each of the songs. Their guitars dance around the full-ensemble arrangements by pianist Alex Wilson, with tracks like "Ixtapa" and the Pink Floyd-inspired "11:11" growing into suite-like epics, while a full-on percussion break lands in the middle of "Diablo Rojo." The Al Di Meola tribute "Logos" is even prettier and slinkier than its original incarnation, and Rodrigo y Gabriela trade licks with the horn section during "Tamacun," showing that while the bulk of their work has been created alone, they're fully capable of playing nice with others.-GG


Stew & the Negro Problem

Making It

Producers: Hester Chimes, Britt Myers, Heidi Rodewald

Label: Tight Natural Production

Release Date: Jan. 24

On his first album in nearly nine years with the Negro Problem, Mark "Stew" Stewart sings that he needs "a stupid song to pull me through." But stupid doesn't come easy for the consistently sharp and provocative Stewart-or for Heidi Rodewald, his ex-wife, bandmate and partner in the Tony Award-winning play-turned-film "Passing Strange." "Making It" is in many ways their breakup album, filled with duets that are wise dialogues and occasional recriminations, but are always bolstered by the soulful weight of the songs. They include brassy rockers like "Speed" and "Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth" and the more nuanced arrangements of "Pretend," "Treat Right," "Suzy Wong" and the instrumental title track. Stewart, of course, manages to weave some social commentary into the mix ("Speed," "Suzy Wong"), but it's the personal politics that make Making It special.-GG