It's been a decade since Kelly Clarkson won the first "American Idol," and next year she turns 30. On "Stronger" (RCA) , her definitely strong new album -- debuting at No. 2 this week behind Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" -- Clarkson is finally trying to act her age, even if it's only momentary. Of course, the album is peppered with the now-requisite kiss-off anthems. They're her bread-and-butter these days and, as she makes clear here, she's no dummy. After explaining precisely how to dump a guy in the opening smack-down ("Mr. Know-It-All"), she warns another dude, "I'm not as dumb as you think" ("You Love Me") before turning the concept around on another loser: "Dumb plus dumb equals you" ("Einstein"). Love is a battlefield, indeed, and Clarkson is still all fired up.
But in that latter song, "Einstein," we hear something slightly new in Clarkson's quiver. The tune glides and rolls with a distinctly R&B groove and is bookended with harmonies custom-designed for Destiny's Child. That know-it-all opener, too -- pure Adele. After belting long, throaty notes arranged expressly for that purpose, Clarkson shakes her finger and throws her head back to start every line, informing the object of her disdain that he's "only got-cha-self ta blame!" It's a breakup album, sure, but Clarkson's not just making fists -- she's dishing some sass.
Too bad she's doing that across 13 songs that are built on the exact same chassis. By mid-album, Clarkson's talent is numbed by the radio-ready formula on repeat, repeat, repeat. A deceptively dusky ballad like "Dark Side" shows her remarkably cool and controlled, building tantalizing tension in the verses, but all the air escapes in the mandatory Big Chorus. This album might actually be stronger if it were allowed to stray a bit farther afield.
Bjork: App-propos of nothing
Want to get completely outside the pop music formula? That seems to be the only goal of Bjork's "Biophilia" (Nonesuch) , the Iceland oddity's new "interdisciplinary project." Part album, part smartphone app series, this set of brave, baroque compositions -- which the mobile apps allow listeners to remix and blend -- at first seems like a fascinating first step into a brave, new iWorld, a grandiose experiment in technology, economics and audience. But what about the music? When you get down to looking at and listening to the actual songs, they're a dreadful bore.
Created using several special instruments -- a "gravity harp," a strangely pealing electronic "gameleste," even a Tesla coil -- the tracks tip-toe by the listener, benefiting from their minimalism and wondrous, National Geographic lyrical themes but utterly lacking melody or anything like the actual electricity produced by that Tesla coil. The whole thing sounds like a terrible effort for Bjork, as well; we hear her taking huge breaths and struggling through the "melodies," on uneasy footing through the sluggish compositions. This album took three years to make, and you can hear it in every leaden, overwrought cadence. Look at the poor woman in the cover photograph: She looks drained, spent, at a loss for inspiration as she lamely plucks her belted harp, as if that photo shoot had been going on for three years, too. She tried way too hard here.
The iPad apps, especially the audio-visualizations, are nifty -- for about half an hour. They're not experiences that get under your skin and demand a repeat. This is merely a 21st-century CD-ROM, and possibly a footnote in a future retrospective of music's transition into some more successful, electronically interactive form.
News that made my October: Magazine, after re-forming for concerts in 2009, have released their first new record in 30 years, "No Thyself" (Wire-Sound) . Created by the great Howard Devoto after leaving the Buzzcocks in 1977, Magazine made arch, literate post-punk records ("Shot by Both Sides," "About the Weather," "Song From Under the Floorboards") that strived for greater sophistication and complexity in the vein of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. His creepy wit is still intact on "No Thyself," lyrically in the explicit, sexually dominant instructions of "Other Thematic Material" as well as sonically in his campy crooning through "Physics" or his comic yelping like Mark E. Smith in "Happening in English." "Hello Mr. Curtis (With Apologies)" manages to both eulogize and kiss off another fellow Mancunian, Joy Division's very late singer Ian Curtis, and Kurt Cobain, while resolving to meet his end in a more pathetic manner: "I've made my decision to die like a King / like Elvis on some godforsaken toilet." Few tracks really rocket ahead like days of old, but it's not a bad visit with an old friend.
News that made my November: Baseball fans cheered the Cardinals' win at the World Series, but indie-pop fans like me let out a whoop at the news that Cardinal -- the '90s chamber-pop duo of Eric Matthews and Richard Davies -- is together again and has recorded their first album in 17 years, "Hymns," due Jan. 24. The single, "Love Like Rain," out now ...
• Power pop demigod Dwight Twilley has recorded "Soundtrack" (Big Oak) , new songs written for a documentary being made about his career and occasional late-'70s/early-'80s hits ("I'm on Fire," "Girls"). The reliable blend of rocking rhythms, slapback vocals and Beatles-rockabilly fusion hasn't changed much, but Twilley always slips in a few refreshing gems, such as this album's foreboding "Skeleton Man" and turbo-charged "God Didn't Do It," the last riffs we'll enjoy from Bill Pitcock IV, Twilley's right-hand axman and an underappreciated treasure, who died last spring.
• Now that Neil Finn's house isn't so crowded -- the kids, such as singer-songwriter Liam Finn, are grown and gone -- he and wife Sharon found themselves staying up late a lot, drinking wine, and writing and recording songs. The resulting self-titled Pajama Club album (Lester)  finds the perfect pop tunesmith trying on sultry grooves and foreboding textures with limited results. Most of this uneasy, out-of-element noodling isn't worth staying up for, save the distant Split Enz shouts of "These Are Conditions" and the nearly complete melody of "From a Friend to a Friend."