"Two Lanes of Freedom"
"Freedom" is the operative word for Tim McGraw on his 12th studio album, which finds him switching labels after a protracted and contentious departure from Curb Records, his home of 20 years. That doesn't mean "Two Lanes" is a wholesale reinvention of what sold McGraw's more than 40 million albums to this point, but the 11 tracks here, even the more mournful ballads, have a liberated, wind-at-his-back kind of spirit that speak to how seriously McGraw and longtime cohort/co-producer Byron Gallimore took this first step into a new era. The bulk of the album — including the title track, the gently shuffling "Nashville Without You," the finger-snapping "Southern Girl" and the Bob Seger-like "One of Those Nights," rests on easy going rhythms and rich melodies, while McGraw gets his rowdy on for the already proven concert favorites "Truck Yeah" and "Mexicoma," the latter of which lifts its bouncy construction from Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta." McGraw hits the cell block with "Number 37405" and brings out the hankies for "Book of John," about a family examining the journal left by a deceased patriarch, and "It's Your World" is a soul-rock epic with an extended instrumental outro. "Two Lanes" closes with a band, too, as Taylor Swift and Keith Urban (on guitar) join McGraw for "Highway Don't Care." McGraw rides off into the sunset a winner here, proving his "Freedom" was well worth the fight.
Josh Groban, "All That Echoes" (Reprise):HH1/2
The classic-pop singer continues to develop as a composer on his sixth studio album, co-writing seven of the 12 tracks and coming up with some genuine pop chart potentials in "Brave," "Below the Line" and "Happy in My Heartache." But Groban's interpretive skills continue to steal the show, this time via a lush, single-voice rendition of the "Once" duet "Falling Slowly," a bold version of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)," an emotive take on the Celtic standard "She Moved Through the Fair" and particularly "Hollow Talk" from Denmark's Choir of Young Believers, which Groban confidently makes his own.
New & Noteworthy:
Avant, "Face the Music" (MO-B/Capitol): The Cleveland-born R&B singer's seventh studio album reunites him with duet partner Keke Wyatt on the track "You & I."
Bettie Serveert, "Oh Mayhem" (Second Motion): The Dutch indie rock group celebrates a mark of longevity with its 10th album.
Bjork, "Bastards" (One Little Indian/Nonesuch): The Icelandic avant-pop singer's latest remix set comes out on these shores after a November release overseas.
The Bronx, "The Bronx (IV)" (ATO): The punk rock troupe — from Los Angeles, despite the name — delivers its first new album in nearly five years after focusing on its Mariachi El Bronx side project.
Joe Budden, "No Love Lost" (Mood Music/eOne): The New Jersey rapper and Slaughterhouse member gets help from Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Omarion, Detroit's Royce Da 5'9" and others on his fifth album.
Ricky Byrd, "Lifer" (Kayos): The former guitarist in Joan Jett's Blackhearts co-produced his first solo album, which he recorded in Nashville.
Terri Lyne Carrington, "Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue" (Concord): Drummer and bandleader Carrington pays tribute to Duke Ellington with this contemporary reflection on his 1963 "Money Jungle" album.
Coheed and Cambria, "The Afterman: Descension" (Hundred Handed/Everything Evil): The progressive hard rock outfit continues the fantasy tale it began on last year's "Ascension."
Harry Connick Jr., "Smokey Mary" (Columbia): The multifaceted singer, songwriter, pianist and bandleader celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Mardi Gras Krewe of Orpheus with this Crescent City-flavored outing.
Eeels, "Wonderful, Glorious" (E Works/Vagrant): E (Mark Oliver Everett) and his latest version of Eels — including a drummer named Knuckles — kick a little harder on the group's first new set in nearly three years.
Funeral For a Friend, "Conduit" (The End): The fifth album from the Welsh heavy rock outfit is its first recorded with former Rise To Remain drummer Pat Lundy.
Mary Gauthier, "Live at Blue Rock" (In the Black): The fiercely distinctive New Orleans singer-songwriter treats a Texas concert crowd to material both old and new on her first live set.
Jim James, "Regions of Light and Sound of God" (ATO): The first-ever solo album from the My Morning Jacket frontman and participant in many side projects.
Grace Kelly, "Live at Scullers" (PAZZ): The youthful jazz singer-saxophonist returns to her home turf of Boston for this concert set, which features several of her own songs as well as genre staples.
Mike Oldfield, "Tubular Beats" (Eagle Rock): The "Tubular Bells" creator teams with German producer York for a remix set that gives some of his best-known work an electronic overhaul.
Matt Pond, "The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand" (BMG): The first acknowledged solo release by the Philadelphia indie rock singer who previously worked in band situations bearing his name.
Red, "Release The Panic" (Essential): A late 2012 single, "Perfect Life," has generated a degree of buzz for the Nashville hard rockers' fourth album.
Ron Sexsmith, "Forever Endeavour" (Cooking Vinyl): The always-worth-listening-to Canadian singer-songwriter reunites with producer Mitchell Froom, who recruited a particularly hot band for these sessions.
Silverstein, "This is How the Wind Shifts" (Hopeless): The Ontario hardcore group's latest is a concept album that introduces new guitarist Paul Marc Rousseau.
Chris Stamey, "Lovesick Blues" (Yep Roc):The dB's co-founder follows the group's 2012 reunion with a new solo set, which includes a cameo from XTC's Andy Partridge on "You n Me n XTC."
SteelDrivers, "Hammer Down" (Rounder): The Nashville string band's third album showcases its tight harmonies and equally impressive instrumental chops.
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, "We The Common (for Valerie Bolden)" (Ribbon): The San Francisco folk-rock collective's ambitious fourth album includes a duet with Joanna Newsom on "Kindness Be Conceived."
Richard Thompson, "Electric" (New West): The vastest release by the always-worth-paying-attention-to triple-threat veteran was produced by Buddy Miller and features a duet with Alison Krauss.
Various Artists, "Now 45: That's What I Call Music," "Now That's What I Call Love Songs"
(EMI/Legacy): The best-selling series continues with two more compilations, the former of which features current hits by Ke$ha, Pitbull, Maroon 5 and others.
Holly Williams, "Highway" (Georgiana): The granddaughter of Hank and daughter of Hank Jr. welcomes Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, Dierks Bentley and Gwyneth Paltrow for duets on her third album.
From The Vaults: Deep Purple, "Slaves and Masters: The Deluxe Edition" (earMusic/Eagle Rock); Al Green, "Love Songs Collection" (The Right Stuff); Jewel, "Greatest Hits" (Rhino); Barbra Streisand, "Classical" (Sony Masterworks); Townes Van Zandt, "Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos" (Omnivore)
Soundtracks: David Buckley, "Parker" (Varese Sarabande); Various Artists, "Safe Haven" (Universal Republic)
New Music DVDs: Mumford & Songs and Fred & Nick, "The Road to Red Rocks" (Glassnote)