BeyonceBeyonce/Columbia Records/Parkwood Entertainment

Beyonce is a beast.

Her fifth self-titled album, released in surprise form a few weeks ago, is a collection of songs that highlight Beyonce's evolution as a woman and artist. It's her strongest and most cohesive album to date.

What's most appealing about "Beyonce" is that it shows, in the sound and method of release, how she isn't conforming to mainstream and commercial standards: The songs, while some will find success as singles, play like a unified assembly, instead of a loose body of work (that's a hit at the slew of contemporary pop singers who are singles artists). On the gloomy "Haunted," Beyonce even hints at the album's future success (or lack thereof): "This probably won't sell," she says. "I don't trust these record labels, I'm torn."

The album marks a powerful time for Beyonce. While her competitors include acts such as Katy Perry, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, singers who consistently release chart-topping songs, Beyonce jumps back in front of the pack with an album that is both commercially appealing and artistically enticing.

She kicks off the 14-track set in a supreme way with the Sia-penned "Pretty Hurts," a mellow R&B number about the sickness behind attempting perfection. It's matched with a beautiful video - as are the other songs - and features the lyrics, "It's the soul that needs surgery."

That's followed with the Jay Z-assisted "Drunk in Love," a strikingly thumping, sexually charged jam that's irresistible. And sexuality is a large part of Beyonce's album.

On the old school-flavored "Blow," one of the disc's best tracks, Beyonce sings proudly of hitting the sheets with her lover, and on "Rocket," co-written with Justin Timberlake, she provides a Quiet Storm-anthem, where she sings softly: "Punish me, punish me, please." On the falsetto-heavy "No Angel," Beyonce declares she's a freak.

The songs on "Beyonce" often double up in sound like two tracks combined, in the vein of Timberlake's work, though most of Beyonce's songs aren't as long. "*** Flawless" interpolates parts of the previously released "Bow Down/I Been On" and is full of swag, much like the beat-heavy "Partition."

Beyonce, a mostly guarded celebrity, has become more open over the years, and that's especially the case with songs such as the self-explanatory "Jealous" and "Heaven," a soft and slow song about a loved one's death that could refer to her miscarriages.

"Blue," which includes the voice of daughter Blue Ivy, closes the album and features Beyonce's beautiful tone and pitch. And that's just it - "Beyonce" is pitch perfect.

By Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press

Britney SpearsBritney Jean/RCA Records

You want to release a good album? You better work harder, chick.

A lot harder.

Britney Spears' latest release, "Britney Jean," is a total letdown. It's not that we expect Adele-styled songs from Spears, or even Rihanna-like ones, but Spears was once a pop powerhouse who made music considered a must-listen, from "Toxic" to "I'm a Slave 4 U." Listening to this album makes you nostalgic for those days. Nothing on "Britney Jean" would be contenders for any future greatest hits package.

The 10-track set lacks so many things: oomph, swag, sex appeal, as well as addictive, memorable hooks. It's almost like Spears isn't even present.

Tracks like "It Should Be Easy" and "Till It's Gone" are techno misses - and messes - even though David Guetta helmed both songs.

The light ballad and second single, "Perfume," is laughable, with Spears warbling: "And while I wait, I put on my perfume, yeah I want it all over you, I'm gonna mark my territory." It sounds more like a commercial than an actual song (it should be noted that Spears has released a dozen perfumes, including two this year).

"Perfume" was co-written by Sia, the ultra-talented singer who has found success writing Rihanna's "Diamonds" and tunes for Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry and Eminem. Another star, will.i.am, is the executive producer of Spears' eighth album. Are they purposely giving her C- and D-level material?

While "Britney Jean" has its upbeat moments, the album is one of Spears' slowest. The singer said some songs draw from her recent breakup, but she doesn't capture emotion that will make you a believer with this batch of tracks. The album follows in the robotic fashion of 2011's "Femme Fatale," though that set had more flavor and standout tracks. Aside from the sexually charged, T.I.-assisted "Tik Tik Boom" and the lead single, "Work B----," Spears isn't putting in any real work.

By Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press

Various artistsThe Music of Nashville: Original Soundtrack Season 2, Volume 1/Big Machine Records

Like the rare, maybe mythical man who only reads Playboy for the articles, some must surely claim to watch "Nashville" solely for the music.

That's no crime, but those who aren't much for sudsy nighttime soaps would do well to check out the ABC show's songs on "The Music of Nashville: Original Soundtrack Season 2, Volume 1."

While the storylines strain credulity, these sonic underpinnings hold the show together, as should be the case with a series set and filmed in Music City.

The actors sing their own parts, and the leads, Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton, do fine jobs at the mic. Yet the true revelations are found in the musical chops of others, such as Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio.

"The Music of Nashville" runs the gamut from the slick and sassy ("Can't Say No to You," "Trouble Is") to tender, deeper cuts ("Why Can't I Say Goodnight," "This Town").

Still, less can be more: The acoustic, demo-like take of "Ball and Chain" sung by Palladio and Bowen on the show is preferable to the Stetson and rhinestone-laden version on the soundtrack by Britton and Will Chase.

Overall, this collection has many hooks worth a listen, and could hook a few more viewers who might typically forgo froth on TV.

By Jeff Karoub, Associated Press