Sam Smith, "The Thrill of It All" (Capitol)
Sam Smith is back with a sophomore album, filled with more tales of heartbreak and unrequited love. But unlike his stunning, chart-topping 2014 debut, "In the Lonely Hour," Smith now sings from a stronger, more confident position.
The first single, "Too Good at Goodbyes," reflects Smith's growing confidence, though the result is still a doomed relationship. Nevertheless, the music shows what separates him from Adele and numerous other British soul singers.
Though "Too Good at Goodbyes" is a ballad, Smith's phrasing is faster and backed subtly by finger snaps that support the faster tempo. "Pray" is the boldest example of his vocal strength, as he exquisitely draws out the notes of the chorus, extending them in a way that other singers would have done through technological tricks. Smith's swooping vocal twists make his singing about deciding to pray seem even more poignant. "Him," where Smith declares his love for another man and accepts the consequences, is his boldest lyrical statement, singing "Don't you try and tell me that God doesn't care for us, it is him I love."
Smith may be most successful, though, when he transforms old-school Memphis soul for "Baby, You Make Me Crazy," drawing energy from the horn section and the backing vocalists to create his most uplifting musical moment and one of the year's best songs.
Sometimes, Smith's sadness becomes a bit overwhelming, but his voice remains a marvel, making "The Thrill of It All" an even more potent statement than his thrilling debut.
Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
Lee Ann Womack, "The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone" (ATO )
Exiting Nashville's major label system was the best thing to ever happen to Lee Ann Womack's music.
The Texas country singer's commercial clout peaked with her wedding song/prom theme megahit "I Hope You Dance" in 2000. After 2008's "Call Me Crazy," she took a six-year break before returning to her roots on 2014's terrific "The Way I'm Livin'," released on the bluegrassy Sugar Hill label. Now with indie power player ATO Records, Womack continues to dig into that fertile ground, applying her formidable voice to a set of unvarnished country songs produced by her husband, Frank Liddell.
The 14-song blue mood piece includes seven she co-wrote, covers of George Jones and Harlan Howard, two well-chosen songs by rising country tunesmith Brent Cobb, and the near miraculous feat of making the storied murder ballad "Long Black Veil" sound fresh.
And maybe best of all — along with the black-and-white cover shot of Womack puffing out cigarette smoke — is Adam Wright and Jay Knowles' title track, which de-romanticizes honky-tonk tropes about lonesome trains and walking the floor with a lyric about how heartache songs never get old.
Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Billy Ray Cyrus, "Set the Record Straight"
• Evanescence, "Synthesis"
• Smokey Robinson, "Christmas Everyday"
• Taylor Swift, "Reputation"