As Graffiti6’s sophomore album The Bridge opens, with the deep echo of piano keys introducing a short, stripped version of “Beside You” before transitioning into the album’s massive title track, it becomes clear that Jamie Scott and Tommy “TommyD” Danvers have experienced just as large a musical evolution since the original 2010 release of debut album Colours. Since then, the Colours album era produced notable singles in “Free” and “Stare Into The Sun,” while each member of the duo expanded their horizons individually — Scott’s songwriting played a major role in the breakout success of One Direction, and he added songwriter credits for Christina Perri, Michael Kiwanuka, 5 Seconds of Summer, Little Mix, and more; Danvers, meanwhile, provided production and orchestration work for several artists, including fun., Emeli Sandé, Tinie Tempah, and Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher. Accordingly, the sound of Graffiti6 as an ensemble has grown as well, drawing from each member’s new influences. Throughout the album’s fifteen tracks, layers of background harmonies, expressive piano and string lines, and production elements pack a punch behind sentimental lyrics of love and loss, creating a wide, expansive soundscape that is as engaging over the long term as it is catchy upon the first listen.

One of the highlights of The Bridge is its title track, in which heavy percussive beats, guitar slides, and impassioned harmonies surround lyrics that evoke loss and helplessness, searching for a comfort zone after a breakup. A similar lost sentiment is heard in an ode for restless insomniacs, “Losing My Mind,” followed by the post-breakup tale of living “Separate Lives,” whose extended coda is a tender, yearning cry: Scott cries out “I miss you, I miss you here, miss your love…” as a soft bed of synths, echoing vocals, and a string line builds until it seemingly ascends into the clouds. Previously-released Christmas song “No Snow” is also included, a smoldering original take on the themes of the classic “Blue Christmas.” However, not everything is dark and dismal, as evidenced by the album’s kaleidoscopic cover artwork: Graffiti6 returns to their familiar theme of sunshine, comparing it to the feeling of love on upbeat track “U Got The Sunshine;” on the intro and extended versions of “Beside You” that serve as the album’s bookends, a couple resolves to stay together through thick and thin.

In addition to several songs with a more traditional, radio-friendly structure, The Bridge includes multiple cuts more akin to jam sessions, following in the footsteps of debut album track “Calm The Storm.” While “Washed My Sins,” which first premiered on YouTube last May, continues to build into a frenzy with each refrain, others (“We Fall Forever,” “Resting Place”) feel a little too long and repetitive even despite their fluid instrumental sections. However, to their credit, these work to provide more focus on the band’s multifaceted production and instrumentation, which draw from the duo’s vast array of musical influences. Like on their debut album Colours, Scott’s smooth vocals are enhanced by TommyD’s production skills — from the sweeping strings on “Separate Lives” to the frenetic beats in “Washed My Sins” and “We Fall Forever,” the production showcases the musical expansion and invention that Graffiti6 has experienced since the release of Colours. As a result, The Bridge is a follow-up release that is anything but a sophomore slump — instead, it is the musical result of looking through a kaleidoscope, demonstrating a formidable melange of genres and influences that shifts boundaries while staying true to the band’s own formula of charming lyricism and adventurous genre-hopping.

A spotlight shone brightly on Lea Michele from the opening scenes of FOX’s television musical juggernaut Glee when it premiered in 2009, as she took the female lead role of talented McKinley High School student Rachel Berry. The diverse musical experience of Michele and the other cast members going into the show — as well as the logical desire for mass commercial appeal — resulted in an amalgamation of many genres and decades of music being covered on the show, leading to record-breaking Billboard chart success. Now faltering in its penultimate fifth season, Michele is expanding to new projects, beginning with an attempted career as a solo pop artist with the release of debut album Louder.

While Michele received critical praise for her Broadway-infused performances on Glee, much of that influence is stripped on Louder in favor of pop music with light, diluted dance beats and overwrought emotion. Though Michele and team assembled a formidable army of esteemed pop songwriters and producers, including Sia, Ali Tamposi, Matt Radosevich, and John Shanks, very little of the pop material on Louder feels like a natural fit for Michele’s Broadway-trained belts. The upbeat pop production on songs like “On My Way” and “Burn With You” forces her voice to squeak as she fights against rising waves of synthesized beats. With more careful arrangements, such as those the Broadway-leaning “You’re Mine” (one of four Sia co-writes), “Cue The Rain,” and “Empty Handed” (a Coldplay-resemblant number on which Christina Perri shares writing duties with Shanks and David Hodges), Michele’s stellar set of pipes is able to shine through. While there are more vulnerable moments as well, such as the tender “Battlefield” and personal album closer “If You Say So,” which Michele wrote with Sia and Chris Braide, they are so few and far between and so oddly sequenced in the narrative of the album that they feel like afterthoughts, a skin that Michele has shed on her way to stake her claim as a pop powerhouse.

Louder certainly has its fair share of earworm melodies, and it is hard to deny that Michele is an extremely talented vocalist. However, the material that she presents as her solo debut squanders her potential and tries to place her in a mold where she does not naturally fit. As a result, the album comes across as a heavily-calculated attempt to commandeer her popularity among the young but rabid Glee fanbase into the same type of catchy, accessible, mainstream-leaning pop that propelled its cast onto the Billboard Hot 100 so many times — and it’s no more believable than the show’s sudden bursts into fully-produced fun. or Journey hits in the middle of a high school classroom. As Michele sings in “Burn With You,” “there’s a white light and it’s calling me” — but it’s the light of the Great White Way that beckons to her, rather than the spotlight at a pop concert.

When Karmin’s YouTube-powered rise to fame began in the spring of 2011, the duo of Berklee graduates gained appeal for their quirky, calculated covers of pop and hip-hop hits, the latter category featuring rapped verses spat with a wink and a nod by Amy Heidemann while partner Nick Noonan often took on a featured role as harmony vocalist and instrumentalist. Following a major-label deal with Epic Records, Karmin released the Hello EP in May of 2012 on the back of top ten hit “Broken Hearted,” after which began a lengthy period of label delays and frustrations. Nearly eighteen months after its planned debut, Pulses was released with two failures to launch in singles “Acapella” and “I Want It All.”

Much of Pulses presents Karmin in the midst of an identity crisis, toeing the line between the original but short-term viral success of their urban-leaning YouTube covers and the hitmaking potential uncovered by the success of “Broken Hearted” and the array of pop’s heavy hitters (Cirkut, Stargate, Claude Kelly, “Tricky” Stewart) that assisted on Hello. While traces of Heidemann and Noonan’s origins are still present, with tracks like “Pulses,” “Drifter,” and “What’s In It For Me” containing urban beats and rap verses, most of the material veers into the pop lane. Among the highlights on that end is “I Want It All,” whose brassy instrumentals, on-trend retro production, and catchy melody bridge the best of both worlds; “Hate To Love You” also excels with its use of bouncy guitars, hemiola-shifted chorus lines, and Nick Noonan’s verse melodies paired with concentrated bursts of rap from Amy Heidemann. “Night Like This” is a less successful bonfire party anthem, with lyrics calling for raised cups and the increasingly popular combination of acoustic guitar and dance beats, while ballad “Neon Love” stands out by stripping back the production to keyboard and percussion. On the other end of the spectrum are tracks like “Acapella,” whose repelling falsetto breakdown in the middle eight was a likely contributor to its lack of radio success, and “Drifter,” which features a dubstep drop and Heidemann pitch-altered to sound like a male.

Where Karmin excels is in catchy melodies, harmonies that feature both Heidemann and Noonan on vocals, and spunky instrumentals that add a touch of flair to what could otherwise become generic pop fodder — benchmarks that tracks like “I Want It All” hit solidly. However, Pulses falls flat in part due to the many peculiarities that make up a large part of the record, primarily in word choice and vocal delivery. Obnoxious, cringeworthy lyrics are sprinkled throughout nearly every song, with topics ranging from Olive Garden and tryptophan to Belvedere and “party pants,” and the rap shtick that gained viral video attention doesn’t translate as well to the record, especially with the duo’s melodic vocal talent often outshining it. Worse yet is when an otherwise good song like “Neon Love” is brought down by distracting vocal quirks, such as Heidemann’s repeated gasps for air, wavy vibrato, and bent notes. Creative differences with label executives likely influenced the confused sound of the album — at times, Heidemann’s voice is so over-processed that she sounds completely unlike herself, even aside from the intentional gender-shifted rap — but the duo themselves seem to have an acute sense of self-awareness regarding their oddball nature, almost applauding their corniness at times on the record. Karmin has potential with strong compositional skill and a unique niche in their “swag-pop” brand, making their eccentricities frustrating at best and annoying at worst.

There is little question that Pharrell Williams was a dominating force in 2013, with feature credit on big hits from Daft Punk and Robin Thicke and production work for a wide array of artists including Beyoncé, Jay Z, John Legend, Miley Cyrus, Aloe Blacc, and Mayer Hawthorne. By signing to Columbia Records late in the year before a chart-topping promotional push for “Happy,” originally included in the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack among several other Pharrell productions, his continued reign into 2014 has become as secured as the hat usually adorning his head.

G I R L, Pharrell’s sophomore solo album following 2006’s In My Mind, comes primarily packed with smooth R&B grooves that pair Pharrell’s easygoing falsetto with rhythmic bass lines, catchy guitar riffs, and a dash of hand-clapping. This recalls the sound of Justin Timberlake’s similarly-hyped The 20/20 Experience, but with the ego and track lengths reigned in, the album doesn’t lose itself in its pretension. Violin melodies are used sparingly to good effect: a brief rising line introduces the album before Pharrell’s utterance of the word “different” interrupts and cues a heavier beat in “Marilyn Monroe;” sweeping lines work well as a representation of the titular “Gust of Wind.” Background vocalizations, indiscernible vocal loops, and hand-claps are also placed in moderation, providing a bouncy and buoyant underbelly to tracks like “Brand New” and “Come Get It Bae,” which feature Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus respectively and sound in tune with each artist’s latest albums. More unusual sounds come in the percussive African influence of “Lost Queen” and the Stevie Wonder-recalling, Caribbean vibe of “Know Who You Are,” adding a splash of variety and intrigue that almost makes the simple-yet-euphoric production of “Happy” feel too lightweight by comparison.

More intriguing still are some of the melodic choices throughout the record. Album opener “Marilyn Monroe” goes from sixths in the prechorus to building from the tonic in the chorus before ending on the supertonic, showing that Pharrell is as “different” from his fellow contemporaries as his girl is from the norm. Additionally, while Daft Punk’s vocals in the chorus are fairly traditional, Pharrell eschews the tonic in the verses in favor of dominant and minor sevenths; the atypical harmonies on the prechorus to album closer “It Girl” provide another compositional treat. On occasion, the falsetto deliveries seem to veer sharp of the intended note, ranging from seemingly unintentional (Timberlake’s entrance in “Brand New”) to deliberately humorous (as Pharrell gasps “you’re leaving me … you can’t be serious!” in “Hunter”).

Romance is a main theme of the album, but it seems as if Pharrell learned from the blowback from last year’s controversial hit “Blurred Lines,” opting to be more gentlemanly. Even on “Gush,” easily the album’s most sexually explicit offering, he questions his urges, noting “my mama didn’t raise me that way” before informing his partner after mentioning how he could treat her well: “I don’t want to mislead you: tonight I think I wanna get dirty, girl,” almost as if asking for permission — a welcome change from the lack of agency given to women in many recent pop hits. Pharrell also follows suit from Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video, sprinkling lighthearted motorcycle metaphors in “Come Get It Bae” and “Lost Queen.” However, much of G I R L feels more upbeat and celebratory of women than aggressive and flirtatious. In “Marilyn Monroe,” she, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc fail to compare to Pharrell’s desired partner; in “Lost Queen,” his love is placed as otherworldly as the only explanation for her perfection before evolving into hidden track “Freq,” in which Pharrell and JoJo praise uniqueness and self-love (and potentially provide a theme song to his collective side project, i am OTHER). Most importantly, Alicia Keys duet “Know Who You Are” champions feminism and self-esteem, as Keys even calls for a pledge to “do what I need ’til every woman on the Earth is free.”

While little seems to echo the hitmaking potential of “Happy,” the material stands well as its own body of work, and Pharrell’s accomplished name alone will likely elevate multiple singles to hit potential, especially as the weather begins to more closely reflect the upbeat melodies on the album. Nevertheless, G I R L displays Pharrell’s knack for catchy melodies and instrumental grooves while putting his own name at center billing, and it will likely continue to cement his place in the pop environment for a long time to come.

After his wife of over forty years, Corine, passed away in 2012, it took George Duke several months to regain musical inspiration. Following an evening spent enjoying the art of other musicians while vacationing on a cruise ship, he sat on his deck in wait of the sunrise when inspiration began to return. Much like this wave of ideas that flowed into Duke’s mind, DreamWeaver’s title track begins with a soft, synth-fueled wave from which second track “Stones of Orion” emerges, a light instrumental number that includes a four-piece horn section (including flute), Stanley Clarke on bass, and Duke twinkling on keys. Beyond, Duke fondly remembers his late wife on tracks like “Missing You” — whose lyrics were rewritten from a direct, autobiographical standpoint to a more general subject as vocalist Rachelle Ferrell took over vocal duties — and deluxe album closer “Happy Trails,” a cover of the 1950s theme song by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. However, the album as a whole is more celebratory than grieving: despite Duke’s inevitable heartache, DreamWeaver includes several upbeat, funky instrumental sections and hopeful, forward-moving moments on “Change The World” and “Round The Way Girl,” in which Duke rekindles his romantic flame.

In addition to the remembrance of his wife, Duke reflects on his love and discovery of music. A mix of genres weave into the sound of the album: R&B, jazz, funk, adult contemporary soul, and spoken word are all represented, and Duke lays synthesizer lines over many of the tracks. With vocals harmonized on the octave and solos on muted trumpet and guitar, early standout “Trippin'” looks back at Duke’s childhood and the musical influence spread by his neighbor, a jazz aficionado. Further into the album, these genres are woven together between an introduction and two transitional interludes, and the threads that compose DreamWeaver are host to a vast number of collaborators, including vocalist Lalah Hathaway, bassist Christian McBride, and one of the final recordings from R&B icon Teena Marie. Along with the instrumental introduction, several of the album’s thirteen tracks offer moments for them and many other musicians to take the spotlight.

While DreamWeaver stretches to nearly all of the eighty-minute length of a physical CD, several moments could be benefited with less length. The fifteen-minute “Burnt Sausage Jam” slips fluidly through three movements of instrumental funk which, while engaging in the short term, often grow repetitive with minutes to spare. The same conclusion can be made for rock-leaning “Brown Sneakers,” whose six-minute length fails to hold interest with the same pace and energy that earlier, shorter standout “AshTray” achieves. This is not to take away from the musical finesse of Duke and his many well-known collaborators, all of whom perform and vibe together with evident skill, highlighted in moments like the guitar and trumpet trades of “Jazzmatazz” and the electric guitar solo on the first half of “Brown Speakers.”

These moments of repetition, however, do not keep DreamWeaver from being a celebratory, enjoyable body of work than spans multiple styles of music. George Duke’s final album is a formidable collection forged in fond remembrance of lengthy relationships with the wife and music that he loved.

For the first time since 1998’s Motion, Canadian bassist Frédéric Alarie assembles a trio setup for his latest release, entitled Enjoy. In addition to drummer Michel Lambert, who also performed on Motion along with saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, Montreal-born trumpeter Jacques Kuba Séguin joins the lineup. Enjoy’s ten tracks sprawl out over fifty minutes, beginning with a solo from Séguin on opener “Connection” before Alarie enters with a lengthy brooding note and overdubbed plucks and scrapes from the bass. This moody feeling stretches throughout the album, with a heavy majority of minor keys and slow tempos. The pace is occasionally quickened on tracks like “Inner World” with a section that feels almost march-like in its snare rolls and and eighth-note bass lines, but they also quickly dissolve into more spacy, unsettling melodies. Though Alarie is the leader of the ensemble, he allows plenty of room for Séguin and Lambert to be heard, though usually in sporadic, shorter phrases; and his bass playing tends to drive the rhythm more than the drumset at times, whose more key role is to add flair with rolls and crashes.

Despite the moodiness of the album and fluid connections where one song becomes the next, Enjoy often plods along too slowly. The higher-tempo elements in “Inner World” and highlight “Enjoy Menuetto Groove,” which fluctuates between major and minor keys, spark some life into the set, but cannot save the rest of it from muddling together. Though all three are technically skilled players, Séguin’s articulation and tone are at times wispy and half-hearted, which drag down some of his musical ideas, whereas solidity in those areas would create a fuller sound and stronger melodic feel. There are promising moments on the album: “Greatness” nearly grows into an uplifting, ethereal zenith before unfortunately fading out too quickly; “Ligneous Plant” creates variations on similar melodies above shifting styles of percussion; and the fluid movements that flow the end of one song right into the beginning of the next show the potential for intriguing sonic cohesion that stretches beyond the few connecting seconds between the songs. While Enjoy’s gray-sky melodies create a potentially interesting counterpoint to its seemingly-cheerful title, much of the material on the record fails to evoke similar appeal.

As previously displayed on his first two GRAMMY-nominated albums, 2011 debut Water and its 2012 follow-up Be Good, Gregory Porter overflows with expression through deep, soulful baritone vocals. Whereas his previous works focused more heavily on political and historical matter, his Blue Note debut Liquid Spirit takes a more personal turn, telling stories of community, affirmation, and love. Porter’s love for the blues, gospel, and soul genres that influence the sounds of Liquid Spirit come from his musical upbringing, citing the renowned vocalist Nat King Cole as a lifelong inspiration alongside saxophonists John Coltrane and Lester Young. As such, the tonal image of the saxophone is evoked as Porter sings, addressing topics familial and romantic as well as historical. The relaxed tone of the Los Angeles native’s vocals deliver sweet, loving lines like those in “Hey Laura” and “Wolfcry,” while “Free” is punctuated with accents and percussion as Porter thanks his parents for their love and sacrifice. Even “Brown Grass,” the album’s emotional low point, shines deceptively with light piano chords that twinkle under Porter’s ever-warm, effortless melodies. Throughout the album, the experiential lyrics written are propelled by the genuine humility and friendliness of Porter’s personality, which is easily carried by the boom of the gentle giant’s thick baritone.

While Water and Be Good employed a larger amount of instrumental solos, Porter takes a more centered role on this third album. These solos are more abridged as well — only three of the album’s fourteen tracks stretch beyond five minutes in length — and whereas his earlier works contained more brass solos and a few scat choruses from Porter himself, Liquid Spirit is mainly populated with saxophone, bass, and piano. This allows Porter’s vocal to shine as the main act of each song, putting his lyrics and comfortable delivery at center stage.

Of Porter’s three albums, Liquid Spirit is the first not to close with an a cappella cover, the previous two showcasing his vocals over classics “Feeling Good” and “God Bless The Child.” Arguably, such a bare display of Porter’s vocals is unnecessary on this collection of songs: he displays emotion and warmth in spades throughout the album such that the reminder of his talent is unneeded, and the conviction of his vocal gives the instrumental underbelly opportunity to further cradle his melody without overpowering it. Porter’s Spirit flows as freely as water here, and as comfortably as he has shown in live performances in the past. Pairing with legendary jazz label Blue Note for the first time on this release, this may be the album that moves Porter closer toward legendary status as well.