Girl on Fire
Alicia Keys doesn’t do half-measures. Her fifth studio album, Girl on Fire, comes on hard and fast, seemingly stripped but rich in sound, triumphant to the point of a cinematic epic scope. It’s her first release since marrying producer-rapper Swizz Beatz and the birth of their son, Egypt.
Keys’ name pops up buoyantly on all writing and producing credits of this 13-track record, a perfect mirroring of its title. But that’s no surprise. She does, however, collaborate with some new folks — including Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Jamie xx and Emeli Sande — and that helps make the album eclectic, while maintaining Keys’ signature, and stunning, sound.
Brand New Me starts up the album with a dramatic piano and unflinching confidence. The Grammy winner’s voice feels unstoppable and free, channeling the martial pop of Beyonce on New Day, the romantic flourishes of Toni Braxton on the Maxwell-assisted Fire We Make and the bewitching auditory imagery of Tori Amos on the album’s grand finale, 101. Nicki Minaj adds her brand of edge to the title track and lead single, while Keys’ toddler, Egypt, pulls an adorable coda on the jazzy industrial When It’s All Over.
Girl on Fire feels organically fed with inspiration, from the drops of light of Listen to Your Heart to the weird urban sounds of Tears Always Win to the funky reggae riffs of Limitless. Keys is on fire, and burning all the competition. Pun intended.
— Cristina Jaleru
The Black Box
Michael Connelly has been writing books featuring Los Angeles police Detective Harry Bosch for 20 years, and his 25th novel, The Black Box, continues his streak of telling stellar crime stories.
Connelly’s writing is like the best flavor of ice cream: reliably delicious every time. This time, the case holds a personal connection to Bosch. In 1992, during the L.A. riots, a woman’s body was found shot in a dark alley. She was a reporter from Europe who was working on a big case, but why was she deep in the middle of the chaos? Was her murder related to the riots or her investigation? Bosch never had a chance to find out because he was pulled to another crime and the case was turned over to another unit.
Her murder was never solved, and Bosch never forgot about it. Working for the cold case unit, Bosch decides to reopen the case, and soon discovers the gun used in her shooting was involved in other crimes involving gang members.
Instead of following the money, he decides to follow the gun. His hope is to find the “black box” — the key piece of evidence. He knows that if he’s persistent, he’ll finally discover the truth.
His character and code of honor make Bosch one of the top detectives in crime fiction. Connelly has a gift for taking what seem to be cliches and making them fresh and vibrant. Readers should find this Black Box because what it unveils is extraordinary.
— Jeff Ayers
Three years after Michael Jackson’s death, it’s becoming pretty clear that his archives don’t contain another Billie Jean, Man in the Mirror or even Butterflies.
2010’s Michael was a nice though hardly scintillating collection of previously unreleased Jackson songs, and the three-CD, one-DVD box set Bad 25, celebrating the anniversary of Jackson’s other blockbuster album, has an even less impressive set of songs from Jackson’s vault.
Following the set’s first disc, which contains the underrated Bad album in full, is another disc of bonus material with several unreleased songs. The problem with those tunes is that they sound like something Jackson wasn’t ready to let the world hear. While Jackson’s voice is enchanting, the songs are mired by weak lyrics and melodies and themes that sound too similar to some of his key hits. As scintillating a vocalist as Jackson was, even he can’t elevate so-so material.
Perhaps the makers of this anniversary collection knew that as well. So to make the box set worthwhile, they’ve included a real treasure here — Jackson’s 1988 concert at Wembley Stadium. Watching Jackson in what was arguably his peak as a performer is chill-inducing — his frenetic gyrations, moonwalks, spins and jumps delivered while he’s singing at full strength. For the concert alone, Bad 25 is worth getting (it also comes with a live CD of the concert).
There are also other goodies for fans to enjoy, like a double-sided poster, remixes from DJ Afrojack and cool photos in the CD and DVD booklets.
— Nekesa Mumbi Moody