Noteworthy: A roundup of recent pop releases

Neil Diamond sheds the schmaltz; Lenny Kravitz – inspired throwback or tired mimic?; Madonna delivers on dance; Santogold's belated debut.

Neil Diamond – Home Before Dark

Music-business stalwart Neil Diamond again teams with Rick Rubin, über­producer of Johnny Cash's career-capping quintet of awesome American records, and together they create Diamond's most melodic, mature, and reflective album to date. Gone from this largely down-tempo effort is the "Jazz Singer"-era schmaltz and nostalgic pandering to the retired ladies in the front row; instead, the two consummate pros jettison big orchestration in favor of warm, stripped-down acoustic guitar and piano arrangements. From the epic lament "If I Don't See You Again" to the beautiful duet (with Natalie Maines) "Another Day (That Time Forgot)" to the bare-honest, tear-bringing title track, "Home Before Dark" is the perfect poetic bookend to Diamond and Rubin's gorgeous 2005 "12 Songs."

– Robert Newton

Def Leppard – Songs From the Sparkle Lounge

What could be a better fit for a glitter-rock disc than the words "Sparkle Lounge"? Def Leppard sticks to its big-chorus guitar-pop anthems on the band's new CD, bolstered by arena-ready stomper "C'mon C'mon" and the Queen tribute "Love," a dexterous shift between soothing layered vocals and roaring guitars. First single "Nine Lives," a crossover collaboration with Tim McGraw, sounds like Def Leppard with a Tim McGraw vocal added to the first verse. Not a lost cause, but no cause for hysteria, either. Still, longtime fans will find plenty to like here with straight-ahead glam rockers ("Gotta Let It Go," "Hallucinate") galore. Maybe there is life after Mutt Lange, after all. So go ahead: Pour some sparkle on me.

– Erik Spanberg

Lenny Kravitz – It's Time for a Love Revolution

Endlessly retro rocker Lenny Kravitz returns with a disc that celebrates his '60s and '70s heroes yet again. Depending on your point of view, this makes him an inspired throwback or a tired mimic. There is no doubt of Kravitz's multitasking: He plays drums, bass, lead guitar, sings, and probably handles the catering, too. Like Paul McCartney's solo work, Kravitz spreads himself too thin, winding up with half an album of strong songs – and the rest serviceable if uninspired. The obligatory Beatles homage ("Good Morning") and Aerosmith-styled power ballad ("I Love the Rain") fit the latter category. An endless bittersweet tribute to his late father fizzles, as does lead single "I'll Be Waiting" with its requisite string section. Kravitz cooks on hippie-happy scorcher "Love Revolution" and blends Chili Peppers funk rock with Zep-ready stomp on killer cut "Love Love Love." He also delivers a Stonesy shimmy on "Dancin' Til Dawn" and a slow-build blast on "If You Want It." No revolution here, but, then, who expected one?

– E.S.

Madonna – Hard Candy

You could put a Twinkie in a cryogenic freezer and it would still have a shorter life span than Madonna's career, now in its third decade as she continues to accumulate No. 1s as effortlessly as a whale swallowing krill. Given that the secret to her success is to emerge from the chrysalis of each album cycle with a buzzworthy new image and fresh phalanx of collaborators, Madonna has hooked up with the likes of Timbaland, Kanye West, and Justin Timberlake for a dance record. Constructed of sheeny synthetics and throbbing techno, "Hard Candy" fulfills its presumed mission: to give subwoofers everywhere a cardio workout. The record has a clutch of great floor-fillers, including "Miles Away," "Incredible," and "Dance 2 Night," but, alas, the titanium production has cooled Madonna's usual vocal exuberance, making her seem a little removed from the songs. Not helping those impressions: The oversexed lyrics offer little insight into the woman herself – other than that the nearly-50-year-old is working overtime to persuade us that she's at the hub of today's youth culture. Madonna's two best records, "Ray of Light" and "Music," are so enduring because the lyrics dealt reflectively with middle age and motherhood. Madonna can get away with this nightclubbing image for just a little longer, but it'll soon be time for an age-appropriate reinvention.

– Stephen Humphries

Santogold – Santogold

The mysterious moniker, a permastick nickname, belongs to Brooklyn native Santi White, a former A&R representative at Epic records. Her biggest discovery: her own talent. Now in her early 30s, she's belatedly released a debut album that has already reserved a place in many critics' best-of-2008 lists. This multigenre confection draws on hip-hop, New Wave, reggae, and electronica, so there's a thrill of discovery as each track begins. The ska-influenced "Say Aha," for instance, pops its bubbly mood for a surreal middle eight that sounds like Asha Bhosle singing a Bollywood classic. "You'll Find a Way" sounds like a lost classic by The Police crossed with deep-dub grooves. Though mostly dazzling, the album isn't without flaws. The low-battery sign threatens to flicker on during the droney and unimaginative cheerleading chants of "Creator" and "Unstoppable." But listen to the hooky choruses of "L.E.S. Artistes" and "I'm a Lady," and one can't help but think this is the sophomore album Lauren Hill should have made.

– S.H.

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