Carrie Underwood

Album: “Cry Pretty”

Grade: B

For the first time in her career, Carrie Underwood took over co-producing duties on her new album, “Cry Pretty,” and co-wrote nine of the 13 tracks. But does it make the collection more personal?

Underwood is a spectacular natural singer with a great ear for songs. But after an injury to her face last fall, she hid from the public for months as the tabloids circled.

Ultimately, she returned this year looking about the same as before and announced this summer she’s pregnant with her second child. Now her personal life has become a bit more front and center than before. She’s always sung with authentic emotion and drama, but she was more skilled at interpreting the song than revealing much about herself.

“Cry Pretty” is not the confessional record that her country peers have done really well, as evidenced from the title track that notes she’s “not usually the kind to show my heart to the world.” But she’s pushing herself in new musical directions, teasing out parts of her multifaceted voice with rhythm and tempo that feels like you’re hearing her anew.

Working with producer David Garcia, who co-wrote the pop country collab “Meant to Be” by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, Underwood adds R&B, pop and dance rhythms to songs like “Backsliding” and “End Up With You.” On “Low,” she slinks into a bluesy country groove that sounds like a perfect vehicle for a duet between Underwood and Chris Stapleton.

However, the country ballad, “The Bullet” feels empty with lyrics such as, “You can blame it on hate, or blame it on guns, but mommas ain’t supposed to bury their sons.” “Love Wins” is in a similar vein, delivering somewhat vague messages of hope, unity and love for all, but the building music makes better use of her soaring, arena-sized vocals.

She ends the album with what is likely the closest we’re going to see of “real Carrie” on “Kingdom,” where she sings about scampering children and the highs and lows of a family that’s “perfectly imperfect.” The song seems more revealing than the others, especially because it touches on her strong Christian faith.

It also shows that she can be relatable when she lets her guard down.

Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press

Willie Nelson

Album: “My Way”

Grade: A

Willie Nelson is country music personified, but he’s no red-headed stranger to the Great American Songbook, either. On “My Way,” the prolific Texan swings and croons through 11 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, with whom he formed an unlikely and undeniable mutual admiration society.

Nelson has been releasing albums at a pace rarely seen these days among major stars, much less 85-year-olds who’ve been on the road forever. “My Way,” second of the year after the reflective “Last Man Standing,” is a joy from start to finish.

With “Stardust,” his smash 1978 LP, Nelson became an early adherent to the now-ubiquitous crossover interpretation of pop standards and though he’s recorded some of these songs before — including opener “Fly Me to the Moon” and one of Sinatra’s greatest performances, “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” — the right-sized string and horn arrangements led here by Matt Rollings accommodate both Ol’ Blue Eyes’ world and Nelson’s own idiosyncratic interpretations.

“Fly Me to the Moon” gains a slightly more spirited pace than on Nelson’s 2009 “American Classic,” while “Summer Wind” includes a lyrical Nelson solo on Trigger, that nylon-string Martin guitar of his with an extra hole resulting from years of use.

The backing really shines on “One for My Baby” and Nelson’s vocal shows how he is indeed a “kind of poet” even when the song is not his own composition.

—Pablo Gorondi, Associated Press