Janelle Monae’s debut EP was the first act of a rock opera about a paranoid robot planning world domination. Now comes the concept album “The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)” (Wondaland Arts) as the 24-year-old plots her own rise. The mishmash of styles is both magnificent and messy. Is she Madonna, Paul McCartney or Morrissey? I can’t decide, so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and a rating of ****.
“Marnie Stern” (Kill Rock Stars) is the self-titled CD by a New Yorker known for her finger-tapping guitar work and confessional lyrics. This time, the playing is hyperactive; tracks such as “For Ash” are raw and tender. Rating: ***1/2.
“Have One on Me” (Drag City) is Joanna Newsom’s most accessible collection yet. Electric guitar augments the Californian-born singer’s harp and piano. The title track is an ode to Lola Montez, the 19th-century dancer, and good enough to rise above fears of self-indulgence -- the triple CD has multiple tracks close to the 10-minute mark. Rating: ***.
Lissie, “Catching a Tiger” (Columbia). YouTube fans will know the Illinois native for her soulful cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” Now she lets loose on a selection of her own songs such as “When I’m Alone.” Lissie sounds like a hot, younger Stevie Nicks. Rating: ***.
Thea Gilmore, “Murphy’s Heart” (Fullfill). A woefully underrated U.K. folk rocker, Gilmore, 30, has been turning out a CD a year for a decade now. Her 2001 live favorite number “This Girl Is Taking Bets,” now has a rival in “This Town” (“I’m your worst fear, a graveyard souvenir”). Rating: ***.
Kelli Scarr’s debut “Piece” (Silence Breaks records) was recorded on an upright piano at home in between her hospital day job and three-year-old son’s naps (listen for the sounds of him waking up). While she has worked with indie band Moonraker and Moby in Brooklyn, this CD is as intimate as a family snapshot, especially heartfelt numbers like “Salt to the Sea.” Rating: ***.
The precocious Laura Marling’s first collection, “Alas I Cannot Swim,” was nominated for the U.K.’s Mercury Prize. The follow-up, “I Speak Because I Can” (Virgin) shows assurance beyond her 20 years. “What He Wrote” is a folky gem about wartime letters between husbands and wives. Rating: ***.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, 52, has been around longer than the others, with 13 million record sales and several Grammys to her credit. “The Age of Miracles” (Zoe/ Rounder Records) is an accomplished slice of country music. Rating: ***.
Ke$ha, at 23, has generated almost as much buzz as bigger sellers. “Animal,” her RCA debut, bubbles with sugary pop such as “Your Love Is My Drug.” It’s almost fun enough to forgive the autotune vocals. The album gets an extra disc, “Cannibal,” later this month. Rating: **.
There’s also much to recommend by M.I.A., Amy Macdonald and Katie Melua, Corinne Bailey Rae and Laurie Anderson. Alison Goldfrapp’s comeback is good, though not as stellar as its predecessor. U.K. music student Leddra Chapman followed her sweet debut “Telling Tales” with a fun single, “Summer Song.” Rating: ***. Watch for her too.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
The CDs are priced from $12.98, or 8.99 pounds in the U.K. Download fees vary across services.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first of a series of three on 2010 music.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.