(Capitol ***)

Beck has been alternating serious-sounding mellowed-out albums with self-consciously funkified beat-happy discs for more than  two decades. So it was to be expected that the downcast shimmer of 2014's Morning Phase — which pulled off a Kanye West-irritating Grammy album-of-the-year victory — would be followed by an uptempo affair with designs on the dance floor.

What is surprising is just how peppy  and patently unironic Colors is. Produced by Greg Kurstin, who used to play keyboards in Beck's band and who has gone on to chart-topping success with Adele, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and others, the 11-song collection is the most unabashedly pop album of the post-modern-pastiche artist's career. Colors does have vaguely trippy moments, like the quasi-psychedelic "Wow," in which the 47-year-old songwriter rather lamely trots out absurdist couplets such as "Standing on the lawn doin' jiu jitsu / Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu." But for the most part, the album's big drum and boisterous synth sound is straightforward in its courting of radio airplay, or at least a featured slot on the summer festival circuit. It effectively demonstrates that Beck still has the skills to play in the pop marketplace, but in doing so, his identity becomes less distinct. — Dan DeLuca

Kelly Clarkson
Meaning of Life
(Atlantic ***1/2)

With her first new album for a new label since her start, the American Idol-turned-major-league-pop-belter doesn't exactly challenge the existential dilemmas of existence as portended in that weighty title. Dignaga never wrote a piece titled "Love So Soft," like Clarkson. What she does here is her usual righteous, pop-soul blend with an emphasis on the latter, clean thick production flips, more guitars and R&B backgrounds (than beat programmers), and a willingness to point fingers at those who wronged and righted the Nashville-born singer-composer. The result of all this is Clarkson's most organically flowing and deeply soulful effort.

The aforementioned "Love So Soft" is a nice place to start, with its stormy weather R&B and tip of the hat to Janis Joplin while remaining modern and sleek. That Texan soul vibe carries into "Whole Lotta Woman" as it references strong, stealth women of the American South with a twang mixed into its swing. Where right-headed women are concerned, "Go High" takes from Michelle Obama's famous "When they go low, we go high" speech without yielding too much corn. And as far as wronged women go, yes, Clarkson has attacked her old boss at RCA, Clive Davis, for interfering with her work before, but neither she nor any other artist I can name has done so in tender ballad form, as she does via "I Don't Think About You." — A.D. Amorosi

Darius Rucker
When Was the Last Time
(Capitol Nashville *** stars)

The title of Darius Rucker's new album comes from the lead track, "For the First Time." It's a catchy anthem about the life-affirming pleasures of trying new things: "When was the last time you did something for the first time?"

When it comes to his music, Rucker doesn't exactly break any new ground here. The former Hootie and the Blowfish singer remains a solidly mainstream country artist. And parts of his fifth country album fall into the formulaic, more so than on his previous efforts.

At his best, however, Rucker continues to bring warmth and intelligence to the commercial form — from that title track to the strings-kissed ballad "Another Night with You" and the set-closing "Story to Tell," which shows that he does indeed have one. And he also shines on the pure honky-tonk of  "Count the Beers" and "Straight to Hell," joined on the latter by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley. — Nick Cristiano