Pain and power infuse new Blige album

MARY J. BLIGE "Stronger With Each Tear" (Matriarch // Geffen)

Mary J. Blige, soul's reigning queen, seemed to be everywhere in 2009. Her singsong Auto-Tuned voice appeared in ads (the repetitious melody line of "The One") where an onscreen Mary J. kept changing outfits. Her gut-wrenching "I Can See in Color" was the theme of Lee Daniels' heartbroken flick "Precious." So dread-filled yet joyful was the especially tender "Color" that it simply felt like another of Daniels' troubled characters.

From those tunes to the sway and kick of "Kitchen" to the snaking sensuality of "Hood Love" - whether she's spitting through stormy-weather R&B or plinking hip-hop, "Stronger" proves again that she's a dynamic singer. It's not the strongest of her albums. There are too few hooks, too many righteous-but-rote Blige signature lyrical moments, and too little connectivity between its producers.

Adversity is met and triumphed over, no doubt, but she needs to dig into some busted-up minutiae. Sonically, only producer Raphael Saadiq offers her challenges by going quiet and spare. Yet during "I Am," when she steams, "I've got everything you need right here," you can't help agreeing with the queen of pain.

- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

ROBIN THICKE "Sex Therapy" (Star Trak)

After spending much of his early career penning hits for other artists, including Lil Wayne and Usher, singer/songwriter Robin Thicke began recording his own material in 2003, putting a modern spin on blue-eyed soul. During the next few years, Thicke's name became synonymous with sweet-talking R&B. But with the release of his latest album, "Sex Therapy," Thicke has crossed the line from playful innuendo to - well, no innuendo.

"Sex Therapy" is Thicke's first album to have a parental advisory notice on the package, and for good reason. If the album title alone didn't give away much of the lyrical content, it'll hit you in the face just a few tracks in. Lyrics aside, the songwriting is pretty stellar. The sultry beats and provocative rhythms show heavy influence from both classic and modern R&B, but there are also unexpected influences from hip-hop and bossa nova. When Thicke combines slow and warm melodies with classy lyrics, the songs are beautiful. Otherwise, songs sound like outtakes from "Flight of the Conchords."

- Katherine Silkaitis, Philadelphia Inquirer

LHASA "Lhasa" (Nettwerk)

Lhasa takes her time. A Mexican-American from Montreal, Lhasa de Sela released her first album, the acclaimed "La Llorona," in 1998, and her second, "The Living Road," in 2003. Her third, simply "Lhasa," came out this year. It's her first with all English songs, her most understated, and her best. Buoyed by spare guitar-picking and harp-plucking, with minimal bass and drums and glimpses of piano and violin, it's a stately, acoustic, nocturnal album of roiling emotions. It's gorgeous.

"Rising" is a waltz-time ballad of stormy sentiment; "Love Came Here" clatters and thumps, but softly; "Where Do You Go" floats on a shimmering harp figure. Throughout, Lhasa sings in an aching, pure alto, with a poetic gravitas that never slips into melodrama. The songs move slowly and deliberately, taking their time. Fans of Sam Phillips, Keren Ann, Marianne Faithfull or Cowboy Junkies take note.

-Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer